The Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Vocal Tradition: Acoustic Communication and its Role in the Orca Family Unit

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

Edward Keith

Second Advisor

Keith Ronald


Vocal communication is best suited for social animals in the marine environment because of the higher velocity sound in water compared to other media. Acoustic communication is vital to social animals such as Orcinus orca. Orca have a stable social structure that is matrilineal in nature and is based on a vocal repertoire that is pod specific. Prey type and availability influence the call repertoires used by orca, which impact all aspects of orca society. The acoustic, genetic, and behavioral differences in sympatric forms of orca, such as the resident and transient populations from the Northeastern Pacific, can also be attributed to prey availability. The female matriarch, the head of the matrilineal unit, is integral to the success and the cohesion of the killer whale pod. The matriarch is extremely important to the survival of her pod through teaching and imparting culture to offspring and younger pod members. Without the matriarch, the pod is vulnerable to dissolution and loss of members to other pods. The continued study of orca acoustic communication is extremely important to ensure the survival of the species.

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