Orcas remember what to copy: a deferred and interference-resistant imitation study

José Zamorano-Abramson*, Mª Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Fernando Colmenares, Josep Call

*Corresponding author for this work

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Response facilitation has often been portrayed as a “low level” category of social learning, because the demonstrator’s action, which is already in the observer’s repertoire, automatically triggers that same action, rather than induces the learning of a new action. One way to rule out response facilitation consists of introducing a delay between the demonstrator’s behavior and the observer’s response to let their possible effects wear off. However, this may not rule out “delayed response facilitation” in which the subject could be continuously “mentally rehearsing” the demonstrated actions during the waiting period. We used a do-as-the-other-did paradigm in two orcas to study whether they displayed cognitive control regarding their production of familiar actions by (1) introducing a delay ranging from 60 to 150 s between observing and producing the actions and (2) interspersing distractor (non-target) actions performed by the demonstrator and by the subjects during the delay period. These two manipulations were aimed at preventing the mental rehearsal of the observed actions during the delay period. Both orcas copied the model’s target actions on command after various delay periods, and crucially, despite the presence of distractor actions. These findings suggest that orcas are capable of selectively retrieving a representation of an observed action to generate a delayed matching response. Moreover, these results lend further support to the proposal that the subjects’ performance relied not only on a mental representation of the specific actions that were requested to copy, but also flexibly on the abstract and domain general rule requested by the specific “copy command”. Our findings strengthen the view that orcas and other cetaceans are capable of flexible and controlled social learning.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1035-1048
Number of pages14
JournalAnimal Cognition
Early online date15 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2023


  • Social learning mechanisms
  • Deferred imitation
  • Cognitive control
  • Cetacean cognition
  • Orca


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