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Developmental changes in the resting strategies of killer whale mothers and their calves in managed care from birth to 36 months

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image of Behaviour

The development of cetacean sleep has not been explored fully. Questions such as whether cetacean mothers regulate their offspring’s resting behaviour and do resting behaviours change over the course of cetacean development remain unanswered. To address these questions, an investigation of the resting strategies and activity levels for four killer whale (Orcinus orca) calves and their mothers in managed care during free-swim conditions was conducted during the first three years of life. A series of interrelated hypotheses were assessed using three independent sets of archived data (24 h behaviour records, video recordings, and instantaneous sampling) collected from two facilities. Together, the results indicated that mothers adjusted their activity levels based on their calves’ current level of development. Floating, often a preferred resting behaviour, was rarely observed during the first post-parturition month for any of the mother–calf pairs. Rather, the mother–calf pairs tended to display fast-moving mother–calf swims with frequent trajectory changes as the calf gained swimming proficiency. Although floating occurred more frequently over time for all pairs, all four killer whale mother–calf pairs displayed a preference for a slower-paced pattern swim (i.e., swim-rest). Calves preferred to rest with their mothers over resting with others or independently. The similarities in resting strategies displayed by the killer whale mother–calf pairs housed in independent facilities without temporal overlap emphasizes the conserved nature and development of these strategies in a precocial cetacean species with extended maternal care.

Affiliations: 1: aDepartment of Psychology, St. Mary’s University, One Camino Santa Maria, San Antonio, TX 78228, USA ; 2: bSeaWorld San Antonio, 10500 Sea World Drive, San Antonio, TX 78251, USA ; 3: cCanisius College, 2001 Main Street. Buffalo, NY 14208, USA

*Corresponding author’s e-mail address:

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