Horizontal transmission of vocal traditions in killer whale (Orcinus orca) dialects
Unlike most other mammals, killer whales are capable of vocal learning and learn the dialect of their natal pod from their mothers. The classical model of killer whale dialect development suggests that the repertoire of calls is learned only “vertically” from mother to offspring, and calls evolve gradually with time by random drift caused by the accumulation of copying errors. However, some observations suggest that not only “vertical” (from mother to offspring) vocal learning can occur in killer whales, but also “horizontal” (between adult animals). In this study we analyzed the distribution of different call types and similarity of calls from the same type in different pods of killer whales from Kamchatka waters to estimate the probability of existence of interpod horizontal transmission of vocal traditions in killer whales. We found that the degree of similarity of K1 calls and K5 calls in different pods can differ. This situation contradicts the classical hypothesis and is possible in two cases: if different call types change with various speed in different pods, or if horizontal transmission of call features takes place. The distribution of K4 and K10 call types across pods also suggests the existence of horizontal transmission: K4 calls occur in the dialects of five of ten pods, and K10 calls, in six of ten pods, but only one pod has both K4 and K10 calls. Our results suggest that the real picture of the distribution of call features and call types in killer whale dialects contradicts the classical hypothesis of killer whale dialect evolution through the accumulation of copying errors.