Killer whales (Orcinus orca) feeding on herring (Clupea harengus) in a fjord in northern Norway were observed using underwater video. The whales cooperatively herded herring into tight schools close to the surface. During herding and feeding, killer whales swam around and under a school of herring, periodically lunging at it and stunning the herring by slapping them with the underside of their flukes while completely submerged. The kinematics of tail-slapping were analysed in detail. Tail-slaps were made up of a biphasic behaviour consisting of two phases with opposite angles of attack, a preparatory phase (negative angles of attack) and a slap phase (positive angles of attack). During the slap phase, the mean maximum angle of attack of the flukes was 47 degrees. The maximum speed of the flukes, measured at the notch, increased with whale length (L(w)) and was 2.2 L(w)s(−)(1), while the maximum acceleration of the flukes was size-independent and was 48 m s(−)(2). When killer whales slapped the herring successfully, disoriented herring appeared on the video at approximately the time of maximum fluke velocity, in synchrony with a loud noise. This noise was not heard when the tail-slaps ‘missed’ the target, suggesting that the herring were stunned by physical contact. Killer whales then ate the stunned herring one by one. Of the tail-slaps observed, 61 % were preceded by lunges into the school. We suggest that lunging was aimed at directing the school rather than at capturing the herring, since it occurred at a relatively low speed and there were no observations of the killer whales attempting to capture the herring during lunging behaviour. Given the high performance of the tail-slaps in terms of speed and acceleration, we suggest that tail-slapping by killer whales is a more efficient strategy of prey capture than whole-body attacks, since acceleration and manoeuvrability are likely to be poor in such large vertebrates.
- © 2000 by Company of Biologists