PhD 2005

Dr Andrew Trites

Vocal culture and social stability in resident killer whales (Orcinus orca).

The killer whale (Orcinus orca) is one of the few species for which vocal culture is actively involved in the development and maintenance of the social organizations of populations. In particular, the social structure of one form of killer whales, called residents, is a good example of this involvement. Resident societies are characterized by associations of groups with highly stable membership, which allow an in-depth examination of the association between vocal culture and the nested social hierarchy of that population. Resident killer whales live in small populations where inbreeding is a threat to their genetic diversity. Genetic and cultural evolution may be closely linked in killer whales, as has been proposed for a number of other cetaceans with matrilineal social structure.

To test for a possible link between genetic and cultural evolution in killer whales, I investigated vocal similarities and differences among mixing and non-mixing resident groups and between two ecotypes, residents and transients. First, I examined whether clans exist among resident killer whales in Southern Alaska. Vocal clans had been previously identified in British Columbia but not in Alaska. Two acoustically distinct clans were recognized, each of which was monomorphic for a different mitochondrial D-loop haplotype based on results of a separate genetic study. Thus, acoustic similarities within these cultural groups reflect common matrilineal ancestry, which suggests that clan-based social structure is a fixed characteristic of resident killer whales.

Second, I examined the similarity of vocal repertoires between residents and transients, and among clans and communities within residents. Call type similarity does not exist above the clan level. To investigate vocal similarity above the clan level, I split calls into syllables, and compared their distribution among population levels. Structural variation of upper frequency syllables characterized vocal variation among clans of the same community, while usage of distinct lower frequency syllables reflected divisions among communities and between residents and transients.

Third, I examined syntax, the ordered arrangement of syllables, among clans of resident communities. I found that vertical transmission of syllable order in matrilines is important for the distinctiveness of call type repertoires and leads to clan-specific syntax rules. Previous work has shown that mating mainly takes place between clans. Because syntax similarity appears to be negatively correlated with sociality among clans, resident killer whales may use syntax variation to choose mates with low levels of genetic relatedness. The link between vocal culture and social structure likely influences mate choice in resident killer whales. This link leads to gene-culture co-evolution in


Vocal culture and social stability in resident killer whales (Orcinus orca). Yurk, H. 2005. PhD Thesis, University of British Columbia. 126 pages (PDF)

Ecotypic variation and predatory behavior among killer whales (Orcinus orca) off the eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Matkin, C., L.G. Barrett-Lennard, H.Yurk, D. Ellifrit, and A.W. Trites. 2007. Fishery Bulletin 105:74-87. (PDF)

Cultural transmission within maternal lineages: vocal clans in resident killer whales in southern Alaska. Yurk, H., L. Barrett Lennard, J.K.B. Ford and C.O. Matkin. 2002. Animal Behavior 63:1103-1119. (PDF)

Experimental attempts to reduce predation by harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) on outmigrating juvenile salmonids. Yurk, H. and A.W. Trites. 2000.   (PDF)