Cultural evolution of killer whale calls: background, mechanisms and consequences

In: Behaviour
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  • 1 Sea Mammal Research Unit, Scottish Oceans Institute, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY168LB, Scotland
  • 2 Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Faculty of Biology, Moscow State University, Moscow 119991, Russia
  • 3 Marine Research Institute, Skulagata 4, 121 Reykjavik, Iceland
  • 4 Centre for Wildlife Conservation, Lake District Campus, University of Cumbria, Rydal Road, Ambleside, Cumbria LA229BB, UK
  • 5 Pacific Biological Station, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 3190 Hammond Bay Road, Nanaimo, BC Canada V9T1K6
  • 6 JASCO Research Ltd, 2305-4464 Markham Street, Victoria, BC, Canada V8Z7X8

Cultural evolution is a powerful process shaping behavioural phenotypes of many species including our own. Killer whales are one of the species with relatively well-studied vocal culture. Pods have distinct dialects comprising a mix of unique and shared call types; calves adopt the call repertoire of their matriline through social learning. We review different aspects of killer whale acoustic communication to provide insights into the cultural transmission and gene-culture co-evolution processes that produce the extreme diversity of group and population repertoires. We argue that the cultural evolution of killer whale calls is not a random process driven by steady error accumulation alone: temporal change occurs at different speeds in different components of killer whale repertoires, and constraints in call structure and horizontal transmission often degrade the phylogenetic signal. We discuss the implications from bird song and human linguistic studies, and propose several hypotheses of killer whale dialect evolution.

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