An agent-based model of dialect evolution in killer whales

Olga A. Filatova*, Patrick J. O. Miller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


The killer whale is one of the few animal species with vocal dialects that arise from socially learned group-specific call repertoires. We describe a new agent-based model of killer whale populations and test a set of vocal-learning rules to assess which mechanisms may lead to the formation of dialect groupings observed in the wild. We tested a null model with genetic transmission and no learning, and ten models with learning rules that differ by template source (mother or matriline), variation type (random errors or innovations) and type of call change (no divergence from kin vs. divergence from kin). The null model without vocal learning did not produce the pattern of group-specific call repertoires we observe in nature. Learning from either mother alone or the entire matriline with calls changing by random errors produced a graded distribution of the call phenotype, without the discrete call types observed in nature. Introducing occasional innovation or random error proportional to matriline variance yielded more or less discrete and stable call types. A tendency to diverge from the calls of related matrilines provided fast divergence of loose call clusters. A pattern resembling the dialect diversity observed in the wild arose only when rules were applied in combinations and similar outputs could arise from different learning rules and their combinations. Our results emphasize the lack of information on quantitative features of wild killer whale dialects and reveal a set of testable questions that can draw insights into the cultural evolution of killer whale dialects. (C) 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)82-91
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Early online date24 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2015


  • Learning
  • Dialect
  • Killer whale
  • Cultural transmission
  • Cultural evolution
  • Bottle-nosed dolphins
  • Bird song dialects
  • Orcinus-orca
  • Cultural-evolution
  • Selective attrition
  • Tursiops-truncatus
  • Call
  • Convergence
  • Divergence
  • Signatures


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