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Analysis of a Blainville's beaked whale's movement response to playback of killer whale vocalizations



Increasing evidence links exposure to Navy sonar with certain mass stranding events of deep diving beaked whales. Although the cause of these strandings is unknown, one theory suggests that the animals confuse the sonar signals with vocalizations of killer whales, a known predator. Here we analyze the movement patterns of a tagged female Blainville's beaked whale in reaction to playback of killer whale predation calls. During a deep foraging dive, the whale was exposed to a playback of killer whale vocalizations with the source level slowly increased until the whale prematurely ceased foraging. The heading data from the tag were analyzed using a rotation test with a likelihood ratio calculated for a nonparametric kernel density estimate. We found a significant difference (< 0.005) in the distribution of Δheading (the change in heading averaged over 200 s) after the cessation of the killer whale playback. A test of the angular standard deviation (SD) of the Δheading showed that after the playback, the SD was significantly reduced (= 0.0064), which indicates that the animal maintained a straighter than normal course for an extended period of time. The prolonged directed avoidance response observed here suggests a behavioral reaction that could pose a risk factor for stranding.