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Media opportunity: Flanking female pilot whales are the leaders most often when it comes to diving decisions within the pod: Dalhousie University research

Posted by Communications and Marketing on October 11, 2023 in News

Pilot whales get their name from the belief that they have a lead or 'pilot' who sets the course for their pods, which can sometimes number in the dozens and even hundreds. Little is known, however, about how this highly social species makes decisions that can affect the entire pod.

A new study by Dalhousie University researchers explores that very question with the help of aerial drones and survey vessels that monitored long-finned pilot whales off Cape Breton. They wanted to find out whether there is evidence of leadership in initiating deep group dives among pilot whales -- a subject that has not been studied before with this species.

They found that they could use the timing of when individuals dive to look at decision-making strategies, with females on the left and right periphery most often leading the group. They also determined that it wasn't just nursing or pregnant females that led the dives, suggesting that the search for sustenance for their offspring did not determine who would lead.

Instead, female pilot whales might be viewed as knowledge keepers, much like the cultural practices of southern resident killer whales.

Elizabeth Zwamborn, a marine mammal scientist at Dalhousie, led the research project and is available to discuss the findings, which are particularly important since pilot whales mass strand so easily, with hundreds of whales washing up onshore at once. Understanding how and why they make decisions in their day-to-day lives may ultimately help prevent these often-deadly events.

Please access photos of pilot whales off northwestern Cape Breton. Credit: Elizabeth Zwamborn.


Media contact:

Alison Auld 
Senior Research Reporter 
Communications, Marketing and Creative Services 
Dalhousie University 
Cell: 1-902-220-0491 


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