Sperm whale behaviour indicates the use of echolocation click buzzes ‘creaks’ in prey capture

P. J. O. Miller, M. P. Johnson, P. L. Tyack

Abstract

During foraging dives, sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) produce long series of regular clicks at 0.5–2 s intervals interspersed with rapid–click buzzes called ‘creaks’. Sound, depth and orientation recording Dtags were attached to 23 whales in the Ligurian Sea and Gulf of Mexico to test whether the behaviour of diving sperm whales supports the hypothesis that creaks are produced during prey capture. Sperm whales spent most of their bottom time within one or two depth bands, apparently feeding in vertically stratified prey layers. Creak rates were highest during the bottom phase: 99.8% of creaks were produced in the deepest 50% of dives, 57% in the deepest 15% of dives. Whales swam actively during the bottom phase, producing a mean of 12.5 depth inflections per dive. A mean of 32% of creaks produced during the bottom phase occurred within 10 s of an inflection (13 x more than chance). Sperm whales actively altered their body orientation throughout the bottom phase with significantly increased rates of change during creaks, reflecting increased manoeuvring. Sperm whales increased their bottom foraging time when creak rates were higher. These results all strongly support the hypothesis that creaks are an echolocation signal adapted for foraging, analogous to terminal buzzes in taxonomically diverse echolocating species.