Talking Killer Whales? Gullible Science Journalists More Likely

February 7, 2018

The single most crucial concept needed for me to explain to anyone what my academic specialism is all about, obviously, is the notion of language. And I sometimes feel a twinge of despair at the fact that the general public simply does not get that concept. Any kind of putative transmission of information, or any animal or device uttering a noise that almost sort of sounds like a word, is spoken of as language.

A paper entitled “Form and Function in Human Song,” by Samuel Mehr and Manvir Singh of Harvard, appears in Current Biology. (Danger sign! Why a biology journal, for a paper on psychology and ethnomusicology?) And The Economist (online January 25, print January 27) cannot resist discussing it in terms suggestive of language, even though the topic is reactions to song snippets. The paper is alleged to offer “evidence that music does indeed permit the communication of simple ideas between people even when they have no language in common.” It does nothing of the kind. The researchers took a large number of music performances from around the globe, established that the people who produced them classified them as either dance music, lullabies, healing songs, or love songs, and then asked a thousand volunteers worldwide to categorize them from random 14-second clips to see if they could match the creators’ reports about the intended functions.

To open the article, The Economist chooses Hans Christian Andersen’s remark that “where words fail, music speaks.” Music must speak in very muffled tones, because the subjects’ ability to classify music samples showed that healing songs turned out to be statistically indistinguishable from lullabies, and love songs could not be distinguished from either lullabies or dance music. (The latter two are of course distinguishable: The paper comments that “lullabies tend to be rhythmically and melodically simpler, slower, sung by one female person, and with low arousal relative to other forms of music.” Quite so. I don’t think we needed a biology journal to tell us that.)

The claim that information transmission was demonstrated in the music is patently ridiculous. You might just as well say that food permits the communication of simple ideas between people, given that they will (I predict with confidence) be able to classify food into broad categories like soup, steak, salad, and dessert. Even when they have no language in common.

An even worse case of perverting the notion of speaking a language appeared in the same week, and got far more coverage. Proceedings of the Royal Society B published a paper entitled “Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)” by José Z. Abramson, Maria Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Lino García, Fernando Colmenares, Francisco Aboitiz, and Josep Call. It concerns the training of killer whales to imitate sounds, including the sound of human words.

Killer whale learns to talk,” said the Daily Mail in an online headline.

World’s first talking killer whale,” said the Daily Telegraph.

“A killer whale has been taught to talk human,” announced John Humphrys, a BBC radio news and politics broadcaster famous for his tough interviewing, his occasional grousing about “incorrect” English, and his $900K salary (soon to be partly reliquishedin the wake of a gender pay-discrepancy scandal).

Again, nothing of the sort has been accomplished. Recordings of the animal trying to use its blowhole to mimic a few words can be found here. Any self-respecting parrot would be furious to hear this medley of squeals, squawks, and raspberries referred to as imitated word pronunciations.

But just suppose for a moment that an orca could be trained to imitate the sounds of isolated English words like “hello” or “bye-bye” for a fishy reward. Describing this as “talking” would still be a shocking untruth. Attempted mimicking of uncomprehended noises to win food rewards is not language!

On most academic subjects you simply cannot talk arrant nonsense or tell direct lies about simple, basic things on a BBC news magazine program and get away with it. Put out a press release asserting that cats are in fact reptiles from Venus, and you won’t get a respectful BBC news program interview, with commentary from a herpetologist and an astronomer. Absurd claims on most topics don’t make it out of the starting gate. But when the topic is supposed to be language, the loony theses gallop off down the course, cheered by thousands.

I was cheered to learn that comedians are harder to fool than science reporters. NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me mocked the killer-whale story mercilessly (Mark Liberman supplies a recording on Language Log here).



Killer Whale Predation on Beaked Whales in the Bremer Sub-Basin, Western Australia

Wellard R, Lightbody K, Fouda L, Blewitt M, Riggs D, Erbe C (2016) Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Predation on Beaked Whales (Mesoplodon spp.) in the Bremer Sub-Basin, Western Australia. PLoS ONE 11(12): e0166670. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166670

One Ocean, Many Killer Whale Cultures

March 1, 2017

Iceland’s killer whale society is more fluid than that of their northeast Pacific peers.

The observation that Icelandic killer whales are fluid in both their choice of prey and their group size surprised researchers studying the whales’ social structure. This behavior, discovered by Sara Tavares of Scotland’s University of St Andrews, was unlike that of the intensively studied killer whales of the northeast Pacific, which have more rigid and hierarchical relationships. There, resident killer whales feed on salmon, stick to relatively small home ranges, and live in stable kinship groups led by a matriarch. In contrast, northeast Pacific transient killer whales are marine mammal specialists that live in small groups and travel over wide ranges. While transients also form family groups, it is not uncommon for individuals to form temporary associations with other transient killer whales. Residents and transients, however, rarely interact.

The findings of Tavares’s team show a much less stable association between Icelandic killer whales. They found that groups frequently break apart and come back together, and that it’s not just the prey type, but how the prey act that may be driving their relationships.

Tavares and her team have tracked Icelandic killer whales from boats, photographing the animals as they fed on spawning herring. The researchers amassed nearly 30,000 photographs. From these they were able to identify 314 individuals, and measured the associations of 198 whales, calculating who went where and who spent time with whom.

“One of the most interesting things that we noticed was that individuals with different movement patterns still associated together,” says Tavares. Some whales stay in Iceland year-round, for instance, while some only show up in the summer or winter. Others will travel hundreds of kilometers away to feed on mammals. But on the main herring feeding grounds in Iceland, they will all interact, sometimes in mega pods of dozens, or even a few hundred animals.

So why are Icelandic killer whale societies so much more flexible than those of their northeast Pacific counterparts? Tavares suggests it is because of differences in how their prey behave.

To read the FULL story visit Hakai

Reproductive Conflict and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales

January 12, 2017

Darren P. Croft, Rufus A. Johnstone, Samuel Ellis, Kenneth C. Balcomb, John K.B. Ford, Michael A. Cant. (2017). Reproductive Conflict and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales 2(2), 298-304

Menopause Mystery: Why Do Female Killer Whales Experience The Change Of Life?

January 12, 2017

Menopause is a mystery to evolutionary biologists, but new insights could come from a long-term study of killer whales.

In these whales, the explanation may lie in a combination of conflict and cooperation between older and younger females, according to a report published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Killer whales are one of only three species known to have menopause — the others are pilot whales and humans. Researchers have long wondered why it was that these few species evolved to have females that spend so much of their lives unable to have babies.

Killer whales start reproducing around age 15, but stop having calves in their 30s or 40s, even though they can live for around a century.

A team led by behavioral ecologist Darren Croft of the University of Exeter decided to search for answers with the help of an unusual long-term study of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. There, since the 1970s, researchers have carefully collected information on the births and deaths of individual whales that live in family groups.

Contained within the data is an intriguing clue about why female whales may stop reproducing later in life.

When older females reproduce at the same time as their daughters, who live alongside them, the calves of the older mothers are nearly twice as likely to die in the first 15 years of life. But when older mothers had calves in the absence of a reproducing daughter, their calves did just fine.

“It’s not that older mothers are bad mothers, that they’re not able to raise their calves as younger mothers,” says Croft. “It’s that when they enter into this competition with their daughters, they lose out and their calves are more likely to die.”

The competition may center on access to food, says Croft, because there’s good reason to believe older females feel more pressure to share their precious fish with the others around them.

That’s because, in killer whales, females mate with males from other groups but then rejoin their families. That means when a new calf is born, its father is not around, and females start their lives in a situation where their relatedness to the group is rather low.

As a female grows older and starts having calves that stay with her, however, she develops more kinship ties to those around her. “It may be that older females are more likely to share, and younger females are less likely to share food,” says Croft. That would mean younger females would have more resources to lavish on their own calves.

It’s clear that in these whales, older females play an important role in the survival of not just their own calves, but all of the family members they live with. “If an old female dies, her son’s risk of dying in the year following her death is over eight times higher than if his mother was still alive,” says Croft, “and these are adult sons, these are not juveniles, these are 30-year-old, fully grown males.”

The idea that older females safeguard and enhance their genetic legacy by protecting and providing for their children and grandchildren has been an influential explanation for why menopause evolved. It’s known as the Grandmother hypothesis, and was developed by anthropologists who studied hunter-gatherer cultures.

But Croft thinks that alone isn’t enough to account for menopause, because other long-lived, social species, like elephants, have older females that help their group but continue to bear young until the end of life. “Just the fact that these old females can store information and share that with the group and increase their survival doesn’t explain why they stop reproducing,” says Croft.

Proponents of the Grandmother hypothesis, however, may not be so convinced that intrafamilial conflict plays an important role.

Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, at the University of Utah, says the killer whales are fascinating, but that they’re hard to study. “They’re doing all kinds of stuff where you can’t see it, and even to get demographic data is just so tricky, because they’re all underwater and they’re long-lived,” she says.

She points to one recent study on food-sharing in killer whales that found older females share fish with their older adult sons, perhaps to maximize the males’ ability to sire more babies.

If that’s the case, she says, “it’s not the older females and younger females in competition, it’s the older females contributing to the enormous success of their sons, and then those baby whales are all born somewhere else. They’re not competing, because their moms are elsewhere.”



Those who want to bring an end to cetaceans in human care often claim that the animals experience increased stress in captivity. Is this true and can we trust these words? Let’s look at the scientific facts.

Cortisol, nicknamed “the stress hormone” is the primary glucocorticoid found in most mammals including humans and cetaceans. Cortisol levels can be used to measure stress in wild cetaceans as well as those in human care (Proie 2013).  There are two main samples that can be collected to determine cortisol levels; blood and excreta. Samples can be collected from animals in human care using husbandry methods, collected without husbandry behaviors from both animals in human care and in the wild.

Many scientific studies have been conducted using Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, as they are the most frequently seen cetacean seen at aquariums all over the world. In Proie’s study, mean cortisol levels were significantly higher in wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) compared to dolphins in human care (Proie 2013). When comparing samples of wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to those samples collected in human care without using husbandry behaviors, the data shows that the stress level is in these animals are nearly the same (Proie 2013).

Further, it was clearly shown that the samples collected from Atlantic bottlenose dolphins during husbandry training sessions displayed significantly lower cortisol levels. This trend is mimicked in the beluga whale where mean cortisol levels were significantly higher in wild beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) than compared to samples collected from animals in human care during routine husbandry training sessions (Proie 2013). When we only compare samples of wild belugas to samples collected in human care not including husbandry behaviors, we can see that the stress level is nearly the same (Proie 2013).

Unfortunately, Proie could not compare cortisol levels of wild killer whales (Orcinus orca) to those in human care, as cortisol levels of wild killer whales were not evaluated. However,  orcas in human care showed the lowest cortisol level compared to belugas and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins both in the wild and in human care.

What can we learn from these findings? The notion that cetaceans in human care are more stressed than their wild counterparts is incorrect. The stress differences are not significant between animals in human care and their wild counterparts as indicated when comparing cortisol samples collected with non-husbandry methods.  Zoological Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales have normal cortisol levels and they are not more stressed than their wild counterparts. A study comparing cortisol differences in other cetaceans in human care such as killer whales compared to wild populations would be advantageous to understand the role stress plays in each setting. It is expected that the results would be similar to Proie’s findings.

Additionally, the data shows that animals participate in training voluntarily. If the animals were forced to participate, there would likely be a significant increase in cortisol production, indicating that the animal was stressed. Husbandry training helps to reduce the stress that an animal experiences during medical procedures, thus this type of conditioning is beneficial to the animal and not harmful as some proponents against human care believe. Science does not support the claims of these proponents by refuting the notion that dolphins in human care suffer from stress or have greater stress than populations in the wild.


Proie, S., 2013. A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF CORTISOL LEVELS IN WILD AND (Doctoral dissertation, The Evergreen State College).



Does anyone else think that the elevated cortisol levels might be due to the method of acquiring the samples alone? Too many non “normal day” factors that could effect the result for me to buy the conclusions they are hinting at here.


SeaWorld Uses ‘Misleading Statistics On Life Expectancy’

The article details how SeaWorld uses faulty statistics in their paper on orca longevity. SeaWorld continues to cite their paper, Comparisons of life-history parameters between free-ranging and captive killer whale populations for application toward species management, over and over again to make it seem as though Tilikum is dying at an extreme old age, when in truth he is dying at the very bottom of the average range for wild male orca.

Source: Huffington Post


SeaWorld attacking wild orca longevity studies AGAIN

SeaWorld is again attacking the commonly accepted age ranges for wild orca, AGAIN. SeaWorld has recently released a paper calling into question the methods used by orca researchers to calculate the age of Southern and Northern Resident killer whales, especially post-reproductive females. This is yet another attempt by SeaWorld try and add validity to their false claim that whales at SeaWorld live longer than their counterparts in the wild. While it’s true that for many species life span is increased in captivity, orca are NOT one of them. SeaWorld’s paper Survivorship pattern inaccuracies and inappropriate anthropomorphism in scholarly pursuits of killer whale life history: a response to Franks et al. (2016) can be found here