Animals can vary signal amplitude with receiver distance: evidence from zebra finch song

Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, U.K.
Animal Behaviour 01/2006; DOI:10.1016/j.anbehav.2006.01.020

ABSTRACT Acoustic signals attenuate with the distance over which they travel, but a vocalizing animal might maintain signal transmission by increasing vocal amplitude when addressing a distant receiver. Such behaviour is well known in humans as speakers vary vocal amplitude with changing distance from an audience, a phenomenon that has been interpreted as resulting from our higher cognitive abilities. However, whether nonhuman animals are capable of this form of vocal adjustment appears to be unknown. We investigated whether birds are also able to regulate the amplitude of their vocal signals depending on receiver distance. Male zebra finches, Taeniopygia guttata, increased their song amplitude with increasing distance to addressed females, indicating that songbirds, like humans, respond to differences in communication distance and that they adjust vocal amplitude accordingly. Our findings show that animal communication is flexible in a previously unsuspected way, and that human speech and bird song share a basic mechanism for ensuring signal transmission. We suggest that this behaviour can be accounted for by simple proximate mechanisms rather than by the cognitive abilities that have been thought necessary in humans.

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Henrik Brumm