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Cetaceans with dialects: the killer whale and the sperm whale

Last week, the press was full of news about a recent article that highlight that sperm whales in the Eastern Pacific have distinct dialects. For this reason, the post of this week will explain what a dialect is (in cetaceans), which cetaceans have dialects in addition to sperm whales and which is the explanation to this. 

INTRODUCTION

The first question to be answered is “What is a dialect?”. This question is not simple because sometimes this concept is confused with another one: geographic variation. While dialects are song differences between neighbouring populations of potentially interbreeding individuals, geographic variations refer to differences in song over long distances and between populations which normally do not come together. In the case of dialects, the explanation of their presence is social learning, while in geographic variations the reason can be found in their genes. The function of dialects is to be an acoustical signature that help maintain cohesion and integrity of groups and as an inbreeding avoidance mechanism.

CETACEANS WITH DIALECTS

To date, dialects have been described in two cetacean species: killer whales (Orcinus orca) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). These two species have several features in common:

  • They live in matrilineal groups, that are highly stable groups of individuals linked by maternal descent that protect themselves against predators and other dangers.
  • They live in multilevel societies, that consist of hierarchically nested social levels. From the upper to the lowest level, there are three levels: vocal clans, social units and individuals. This kind of societies are also present in human and other primates and in African elephants.

KILLER WHALE DIALECTS

Dialects have been found in resident killer whales from the northeastern Pacific, Norway and Kamchatka. In this species, these dialects consists on repertories of several call types that are different among pods. Each pod have distinctive features in the call repertories and, therefore, each pod has a particular dialect. Pods that share part of the repertories constitute acoustic clans. So, each clan is acoustically different. Pods from different clans can overlap and interact and new pods can be formed by fission of other pods, which turn out in divergence of dialects.

Killer whales are one of the cetacean species with dialects (Picture: Oceanwide Science Institute).
Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are one of the cetacean species with dialects (Picture: Oceanwide Science Institute).

SPERM WHALE DIALECTS 

Sperm whales have repertories that varied in the proportional usage of different coda types and classes. Sperm whale codas are stereotyped sequences of 3-40 broad-band clicks usually lasting less than 3 seconds in total, which functions are to help maintain group cohesion, reinforce bonds, aid negotiations and collective decision-making. These groups with distinct dialects also interact. To give a particular example, in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, there are six sympatric acoustic clans based on coda sharing, which simultaneously differ in movement and habitat use patterns and in feeding success.

Dialects have been described in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) (Picture: CBC News).
Dialects have been described in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) (Picture: CBC News).

ORIGIN OF DIALECTS IN CETACEANS

A recently published article in the magazine Nature suggests a mechanism that may explain the origin of multilevel societies in sperm whales. As we have seen, it is in these societies where dialects are present in cetaceans. So, here we will explain the origin of multilevel societies in sperm whales as an example.

In sperm whales, the upper level of the multilevel society are clans of individuals that communicate between them using similar codas. These clans are originated from cultural transmission via biased social learning of codas, when they learn the most common codas (conformism) from behaviourally similar individuals (homophily). Thus, the result are groups with increasingly homogeneous behaviour with a strong integration. The cultural transmission plays a key role in the partitioning of sperm whales into sympatric clans (clans that live together but without interbreeding). So, it is in these clans where distinctive behavioural patters may appear, like dialects. The lower level, social units, are originated from ecological, cognitive and time constraints and benefits.

Multilevel societies (Picture: Marc Arenas Camps).
Multilevel societies. Individuals (stars and filled circles) are the lowest level and in association (black lines) with other individuals they constitute social units (empty black circles). Socials units with acoustic similarity (orange lines) form vocal clans (blue and green). It is in vocal clans where dialects can emerge (Picture: Marc Arenas Camps).

HUMPBACK WHALES: A DIFFERENT CASE

The differences in the songs of humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) cannot be considered dialects since they happen between geographically isolated populations. Due to a geographic and reproductive isolation, these differences have appeared as a result of genetic distinctions among populations.

REFERENCES

  • Cantor, M; Shoemaker, LG; Cabral, RB; Flores, CO, Varga, M & Whitehead, H (2015). Multilevel animal societies can emerge from cultural transmission. Nature Communications. 6:8091. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms9091
  • Conner, DA (1982). Dialects versus geographic variation in mammalian vocalizations. Animal Behaviour. 30, 297-298
  • Dudzinski, KM; Thomas, JA & Gregg, JD (2009). Communication in Marine Mammals. In Perrin W, Würsig B & Thewissen JGM (edit.). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press (2 ed).
  • Ford, JKB (2009). Dialects. In Perrin W, Würsig B & Thewissen JGM (edit.). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press (2 ed).

Difusió-anglès

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