Letters to Nature

Nature 420, 171-173 (14 November 2002) | doi:10.1038/nature01030; Received 5 March 2002; Accepted 15 July 2002

Selective habituation shapes acoustic predator recognition in harbour seals

Volker B. Deecke1,2, Peter J. B. Slater1 & John K. B. Ford2,3

  1. School of Biology, University of St Andrews, Scotland, KY16 9TS, UK
  2. Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, Vancouver, British Columbia, V6B 3X8, Canada
  3. Pacific Biological Station, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Nanaimo, British Columbia, V9T 6N7, Canada

Correspondence to: Volker B. Deecke1,2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to V.B.D. (e-mail: Email: vd2@st-andrews.ac.uk).

Predation is a major force in shaping the behaviour of animals1, 2, 3, so that precise identification of predators will confer substantial selective advantages on animals that serve as food to others. Because experience with a predator can be lethal, early researchers studying birds suggested that predator recognition does not require learning4, 5. However, a predator image that can be modified by learning and experience will be advantageous in situations where cues associated with the predator are highly variable or change over time. In this study, we investigated the response of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) to the underwater calls of different populations of killer whales (Orcinus orca). We found that the seals responded strongly to the calls of mammal-eating killer whales and unfamiliar fish-eating killer whales but not to the familiar calls of the local fish-eating population. This demonstrates that wild harbour seals are capable of complex acoustic discrimination and that they modify their predator image by selectively habituating to the calls of harmless killer whales. Fear in these animals is therefore focused on local threats by learning and experience.