No shallow talk: Cryptic strategy in the vocal communication of Blainville's beaked whales



Communicating animals must balance fitness benefits against the costs of signaling, such as increased predation risk. Cetaceans communicate mainly with sound and near-surface vocalizations can place signalers at risk from shallow-diving top-predators with acute hearing such as killer whales. Beaked whales are deep divers living in small cohesive groups with little social defense from predation. Little if anything is known about their acoustic communication. Here, eight Blainville's beaked whales were studied with suction cup attached DTags to provide the first report on social communication as a function of diving behavior for any of the 21 ziphiid species. Tagged whales produced two previously unrecorded signals with apparent communicative functions: (1) fast series of ultrasonic frequency modulated clicks (rasps) were recorded from six individuals, and (2) harmonically rich short whistles with a mean fundamental frequency of 12 kHz were recorded from one whale at up to 900 m depth, the deepest whistles recorded from a marine mammal. Blainville's were silent 80% of the time, whenever shallower than 170 m depth and during the prolonged (19 min) silent ascents from vocal dives. This behavior limits the ability of shallow-diving predators to track Blainville's acoustically and may provide a striking example of the evolutionary influence of the risk of predation on animal communication.