Marine Life

New study examines the acoustic repertoire of Ross Sea killer whales

written by Oceanographic Staff

The smallest type of killer whale has 28 different complex calls, according to new research. The calls comprise a combination of burst-pulse sounds and whistles, which they use to communicate with family members about the changing landscape and habitat.

The study was led by PhD candidate Rebecca Wellard, from Curtin’s Centre for Marine Science and Technology (CMST), who was also lead author.

killer whales Ross Sea acoustics

“In Antarctic waters, there are five different types of killer whales, with Type C being the smallest, growing up to 6.1 metres in comparison to Type A males who can grow up to almost 10 metres long,” said Wellard. “By using passive acoustic monitoring, our team was able to analyse recordings from nine separate encounters with approximately 392 Type C killer whales, including adults, sub adults and calves. We were able to identify that the calls of the Type C killer whale are multi-component, meaning that many calls transition from burst-pulse sounds to whistles. We also found that 39% of the call types started with a series of ‘broadband pulses’.”

The most common killer whale behaviours observed during the study were travelling and foraging under the ice and socialising at the surface, which could explain the increase in call rate. Wellard also noted that the remoteness of the Ross Sea can make it difficult to monitor and record the movements of killer whales.

“During the calls, often two of the sounds occurred at the same time, also known as biphonation. These types of calls could be used to locate where other members of the pod may be. Due to the shifting and changing habitat in McMurdo Sound, calves could also be using biophonic calls to communicate with family members about available breathing holes,” added Wellard. “Our findings provide an initial step towards comparing and distinguishing Type C killer whale acoustics with those of other killer whale populations in the Southern Hemisphere.”

To read the full paper, ‘Cold call: the acoustic repertoire of Ross Sea killer whales (Orcinus orca, Type C) in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica’, click here.

Photograph courtesy of Curtin University.

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