What’s in a Whistle?
For transient killer whales on the hunt, making the slightest sound can mean the difference between a hard-won meal and an empty stomach. Their marine mammal prey—mostly seals and sea lions—have finely tuned hearing that quickly alerts them to danger.
As a result, transient killer whales have complex rules around the audible clicks, whistles and pulsed calls they make. While echolocation clicks are primarily used for navigation and prey detection, pulsed calls and whistles are important social signals that help members of a group to recognize one another, stay together, and coordinate behaviors.
In a recent study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Consortium scientists conducted the first-ever investigation into how transients use whistles compared to their fish-eating cousins, the resident killer whales.
“Here, we investigated the whistling behavior of mammal-eating killer whales and, based on divergent social structures and social behaviors between residents and transients, we expected to find differences in both whistle usage and whistle parameters,” write co-authors Dr. Volker Deecke of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Rüdiger Riesch of the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University.
Riesch and Deecke had hypothesized that transient killer whales should use whistles preferentially over pulsed calls in many contexts because whistles are higher in frequency and therefore not audible to other species over the same distances as pulsed calls. However, they found no support for their hypothesis. Instead of switching from calls to whistles, transient killer whales seem to go completely mum—presumably because even the less detectable whistles can still reduce hunting success by alerting their potential prey to their presence.
The Strong, Silent Type
Their results showed that West Coast transient killer whales whistled only after making a kill or when they were engaged in social activities, as indicated by tail- and fin-slaps, breaches and spy-hops, and they were almost completely silent during all other activities. All West Coast transients seem to share a population-specific repertoire of stereotypical whistles that is clearly distinct from and less complex than that of resident killer whales.
The acoustic profiles of transient whistles showed properties more consistent with a “public” broadcast communication than a “private” one designed to avoid eavesdroppers. Transient whistles generally have lower dominant frequencies, narrower frequency ranges, a shorter duration and fewer frequency modulations—making them more similar to the public whistles of resident killer whales.
“Hence, the main strategy of transients to minimize detection by potential prey is to limit vocal communication to certain behavioral contexts, making detection based on whistle recognition by prey impossible during foraging, regardless of a potential receiver’s hearing capabilities,” write Riesch and Deecke. “This in turn seems to have relaxed the selection on making whistles acoustically private.”
In the complex underwater world of transient killer whales, a whistle can be a dead giveaway to potential prey. Whistles are only welcome after a kill is made and there is no longer a need for stealth, which may explain why the behavioral context of resident and transient whistles are so different.