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Fear of killer whales drives extreme synchrony in deep diving beaked whales

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Abstract

Fear of predation can induce profound changes in the behaviour and physiology of prey species even if predator encounters are infrequent. For echolocating toothed whales, the use of sound to forage exposes them to detection by eavesdropping predators, but while some species exploit social defences or produce cryptic acoustic signals, deep-diving beaked whales, well known for mass-strandings induced by navy sonar, seem enigmatically defenceless against their main predator, killer whales. Here we test the hypothesis that the stereotyped group diving and vocal behaviour of beaked whales has benefits for abatement of predation risk and thus could have been driven by fear of predation over evolutionary time. Biologging data from 14 Blainville’s and 12 Cuvier’s beaked whales show that group members have an extreme synchronicity, overlapping vocal foraging time by 98% despite hunting individually, thereby reducing group temporal availability for acoustic detection by killer whales to <25%. Groups also perform a coordinated silent ascent in an unpredictable direction, covering a mean of 1 km horizontal distance from their last vocal position. This tactic sacrifices 35% of foraging time but reduces by an order of magnitude the risk of interception by killer whales. These predator abatement behaviours have likely served beaked whales over millions of years, but may become maladaptive by playing a role in mass strandings induced by man-made predator-like sonar sounds.
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Original languageEnglish
Article number13
Number of pages9
JournalScientific Reports
Volume10
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 6 Feb 2020

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