Vocal foragers and silent crowds: context-dependent vocal variation in Northeast Atlantic long-finned pilot whales

Fleur Visser*, Annebelle C.M. Kok, Machiel G. Oudejans, Lindesay A.S. Scott-Hayward, Stacy L. DeRuiter, Ana C. Alves, Ricardo N. Antunes, Saana Isojunno, Graham J. Pierce, Hans Slabbekoorn, Jef Huisman, Patrick J.O. Miller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
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Vocalisations form a key component of the social interactions and foraging behaviour of toothed whales. We investigated changes in calling and echolocation behaviour of long-finned pilot whales between foraging and non-foraging periods, by combining acoustic recordings and diving depth data from tagged individuals with concurrent surface observations on social behaviour of their group. The pilot whales showed marked vocal variation, specific to foraging and social context. During periods of foraging, pilot whales showed more vocal activity than during non-foraging periods (rest, travel). In addition to the expected increase in echolocation activity, call rates also increased, suggesting that pilot whales communicate more during foraging. Furthermore, calls with multiple inflections occurred more often immediately before and after foraging dives and during the early descent and late ascent phases of foraging dives. However, these calls were almost never detected at diving depths of the tagged whale beyond 350 m. Calls with no or few inflections were produced at all times, irrespective of diving depth of the tagged whale. We discuss possible explanations for the distinct vocal variation associated with foraging periods. In addition, during non-foraging periods, the pilot whales were found to be more silent (no calling or echolocation) in larger, more closely spaced groups. This indicates that increased levels of social cohesion may release the need to stay in touch acoustically. Significance statement: Social toothed whales rely on vocalisations to find prey and interact with conspecifics. Species are often highly vocal and can have elaborate call repertoires. However, it often remains unclear how their repertoire use correlates to specific social and behavioural contexts, which is vital to understand toothed whale foraging strategies and sociality. Combining on-animal tag recordings of diving and acoustic behaviour with observations of social behaviour, we found that pilot whales produce more calls during foraging than during non-foraging periods. Moreover, highly inflected calls were closely associated to the periods around and during foraging dives. This indicates enhanced communication during foraging, which may, for example, enable relocation of conspecifics or sharing of information. Whales reduced their vocal activity (calling and echolocation) at increased levels of social cohesion, indicating that in certain behavioural contexts, closer association (i.e. more closely spaced) may release the need to stay in touch acoustically.

Original languageEnglish
Article number170
Number of pages13
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Early online date6 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • Acoustic tags
  • Animal communication
  • Call
  • Foraging
  • Pilot whale
  • Social behaviour


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