Pilot whales copy killer whales’ sounds to improve survival

  • by
Pilot whale

New research from Curtin University, Perth, Australia tells us that Southern Australian long-finned pilot whales employ copycat techniques to mimic the calls of killer whales in order to improve their chance of survival because killer whales prey on them. Also, in mimicking their sounds it allows them to more safely feed on the leftovers of killer whales’ hunts.

Pilot whale

Pilot whale. Image by Friedrich Frühling from Pixabay


The study, Pilot whale study reveals copycat calls to outsmart predators, has been recently published on 3 December 2020 on the Science Daily website. They found that the whistles, clicks and other calls of the long-finned pilot whale strongly resembled those of orcas (another name for killer whales). The researchers felt that the behaviour of the whales was far more sophisticated than previously thought.

Rachel Courts, from the Centre for Marine Science and Technology at the university said that they had recorded the sounds in the Great Australian Bight between 2013 and 2017 and noticed the “striking similarities” to the sounds of killer whales.

Pilot whales exhibit vocal mimicry behaviour and have been shown to be attracted to killer whale vocalisations. Consequently, southern Australian long-finned pilot whales may be mimicking Australian killer whale vocalisations in order to mask themselves, acting as an anti-predator mechanism, whilst allowing them to scavenge food remnants from killer whales.

They also found that two populations of long-finned pilot whales, the southern hemisphere population that they studied in the northern hemisphere population of the same species, had the same sounds even though they had been separated more than 10,000 years ago. This finding raises the question as to whether they genuinely have been separated and how far their home ranges extend, perhaps further than they had thought.

The study is the first to research long-finned pilot whales in the Southern Hemisphere.