Drone footage reveals social secrets of killer whales


PICTURE: Orcas coming into contact with each other see After

Credit: University of Exeter

Killer whales have complex social structures, including close “friendships,” according to a new study that used drones to film the animals.

The results show that killer whales spend more time interacting with certain individuals in their group and tend to favor those of the same sex and age.

The study, led by the University of Exeter and the Center for Whale Research (CWR), also found that whales become less socially connected as they age.

“Until now, social media research of killer whales has relied on watching whales as they surface and recording the whales together,” said lead author Dr Michael Weiss of the University of Exeter.

“However, because resident killer whales remain in the social groups they were born into, how closely related the whales are seems to be the only thing that explains their social structure.

“Looking into the water from a drone allowed us to see details such as contact between individual whales.

“Our results show that, even within these tightly knit groups, whales prefer to interact with specific individuals.

“It’s like when your mom takes you to a party when you’re a kid – you didn’t choose the party, but you can always choose who to hang out with once you’re there.”

Patterns of physical contact – one of the social interactions measured by the study – suggest that young whales and females play a central social role in the group. The older the whale, the less central it is.

The new research drew on more than four decades of data collected by the CWR on Southern Resident Killer Whales, a critically endangered population in the Pacific Ocean.

“This study would not have been possible without the incredible work done by CWR,” said Professor Darren Croft of the Exeter Animal Behavior Research Center.

“By adding drones to our toolkit, we were able to dive into the social life of these animals like never before.

“We were amazed at how much contact there is between the whales – how tactile they are.

“In many species, including humans, physical contact tends to be a calming, stress-relieving activity that strengthens social bond.

“We also looked at times when whales have surfaced together – as acting in unison is a sign of social bonds in many species.

“We have found fascinating parallels between the behavior of whales and other mammals, and we are excited about the next steps in this research.”


The start of this drone project – including the purchase of one of the drones used in this study – was made possible through a crowdfunding campaign supported by members of the public, including alumni from the University of Exeter.

The results of the new study are based on 651 minutes of video filmed over ten days.

The use of drones in the study was conducted under research permits issued by the US National Marine Fisheries Service, and all pilots were licensed under the State Federal Aviation Administration. -United.

The research team included the Universities of York and Washington and the Institute of Biophysics, and the study was partially funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is titled: “Age and Gender Influence Social Interactions, But Not Associations, Within a Killer Whale Group.”

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