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Keywords:

  • sperm whale;
  • Physeter macrocephalus;
  • behavior;
  • mother–calf;
  • suckling;
  • echelon;
  • mammary stimulation;
  • dive;
  • laterality;
  • nasopharynx

Abstract

This study is the first to describe quantitatively the apparent suckling behavior of sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus (Linnaeus, 1758), calves using observations from both above and below the surface. Peduncle dives are short (mean 14 s) dives made by sperm whale calves beside the peduncle of an adult female, which were previously assumed to be indicative of suckling. Photo-identification and focal calf-follows were used to collect data during 177 peduncle dive bouts from 22 different calves (11 calves from the Caribbean Sea, 11 from the Sargasso Sea), one of which was followed on forty different days. We found that peduncle diving in sperm whale calves is laterally asymmetrical with a bias to the left side of the escorting adult (69.8% of peduncle dives) and that calves generally do not switch sides during a bout of peduncle dives (switches occurred in only 10.8% of bouts). Further subsurface observations gave insight into potential alternative functions of peduncle diving. These alternative hypotheses, including nasal suckling, and the existing supporting evidence for each are discussed. It is likely that peduncle diving is related to suckling but that the exact function of the dives and manner in which sperm whale calves ingest milk remains unclear.