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Keywords:

  • Cetacea;
  • culture;
  • cultural evolution;
  • gene–culture coevolution;
  • vocal dialects

Human evolution has clearly been shaped by gene–culture interactions, and there is growing evidence that similar processes also act on populations of non-human animals. Recent theoretical studies have shown that culture can be an important evolutionary mechanism because of the ability of cultural traits to spread rapidly both vertically, obliquely, and horizontally, resulting in decreased within-group variance and increased between-group variance. Here, we collate the extensive literature on population divergence in killer whales (Orcinus orca), and argue that they are undergoing ecological speciation as a result of dietary specializations. Although we cannot exclude the possibility that cultural divergence pre-dates ecological divergence, we propose that cultural differences in the form of learned behaviours between ecologically divergent killer whale populations have resulted in sufficient reproductive isolation even in sympatry to lead to incipient speciation. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 106, 1–17.