Motivation before meaning: motivational information encoded in meerkat alarm calls develops earlier than referential information.

Verhaltensbiologie, Zoologisches Institut, Universitat Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
The American Naturalist (Impact Factor: 4.55). 07/2007; 169(6):758-67. DOI: 10.1086/516719
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT In contrast to historical assumptions about the affective nature of animal vocalizations, it is now clear that many vertebrates are capable of producing specific alarm calls in response to different predators, calls that provide information that goes beyond the motivational state of a caller. However, although these calls function referentially, it does not mean that they are devoid of motivational content. Studies on meerkats (Suricata suricatta) directly support this conclusion. The acoustic structure of their alarm calls simultaneously encodes information that is both motivational (level of urgency) and referential (predator specific). In this study, we investigated whether alarm calls of young meerkats undergo developmental modification and whether the motivational or the referential aspect of calls changes more over time. We found that, based on their acoustic structure, calls of young showed a high correct assignment to low- and high-urgency contexts but, in contrast to adults, low assignment to specific predator types. However, the discrimination among predator types was better in high-urgency than in low-urgency contexts. Our results suggest that acoustic features related to level of urgency are expressed earlier than those related to predator-specific information and may support the idea that referential calls evolve from motivational signals.

  • Source
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: Elucidating the information content of vocal signals is fundamental to the understanding of animal communication. Acoustically distinct calls produced in specific contexts allow listeners to predict future events and choose adequate responses. However, the vocal repertoires of most terrestrial mammals consist of a limited number of call types that vary within and between categories. These "graded signaling systems" are thought to be rich in information, at the cost of increasing uncertainty regarding call categorization. In this study, patterns of acoustic variation in grunts of wild chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) were assessed in relation to different contexts, callers' arousal, the presence of listeners, and individual identity. Although overall production specificity was low, and sensitive to the number of contexts under consideration, grunts given in three contexts could be statistically distinguished from each other. Contextual differences remained when controlling for caller arousal, suggesting that these differences cannot be explained by variation in arousal. No audience effect was detected, but individual identity was found to have an influence on acoustic structure. Overall, these results support the view that, in comparison to other signaling systems associated with hazardous conditions, lower production specificity might evolve under relaxed circumstances where unambiguous signaling is less important.
    The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 03/2011; 129(3):1631-41. · 1.65 Impact Factor
  • Source
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: In many species, individuals suffer major mortality in their first year because of predation. Behaviours that facilitate successful escape are therefore under strong selection, but anti-predator skills often emerge gradually during an individual’s early development. Using long-term data and acoustic recordings of alarm calls collected during natural predator encounters, we aimed to elucidate two largely unsolved issues in anti-predator ontogeny: (1) whether incorrect predator assignment is adaptively age-appropriate, given that vulnerability often changes during development, or whether age-related differences reflect true mistakes made by immature individuals; and (2) the extent to which the development of adult-like competence in alarm-call production and usage is simply a function of maturational processes or dependent upon experience. We found that young meerkats (Suricata suricatta) were less likely to give alarm calls than adults, but alarmed more in response to non-threatening species compared to adults. However, stimuli that pose a greater threat to young than adults did not elicit more calling from young; this argues against age-related changes in vulnerability as the sole explanation for developmental changes in calling. Young in small groups, who were more likely to watch out for predators, alarmed more than less vigilant young in larger groups. Moreover, despite similarities in acoustic structure between alarm call types, calls appeared in the repertoire at different rates, and those that were associated with frequently encountered predators were produced relatively early on. These results indicate that experience is a more plausible explanation for such developmental trajectories than maturation.
    Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 62(5):821-829. · 2.75 Impact Factor
  • Source
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: What motivates some members of a social group to voluntarily incur costs in order to provide for the common good? This question lies at the heart of theoretical and empirical studies of cooperative behavior. This is also the question that underlies the classic volunteer’s dilemma model, which has been previously explored in scenarios where group members are related or interact asymmetrically. Here we present a model that combines asymmetry and relatedness, showing that the probability of volunteerism in such systems depends closely on both the degree of asymmetry and level of relatedness between interacting individuals. As has been shown in previous volunteer’s dilemma models, the payoff ratio and overall group size also influence the probability of volunteerism. The probability of volunteerism decreases with increasing group size or decreasing cost-to-benefit ratio of the co-players; in the presence of asymmetrical interactions, subordinate players were more likely to offer public goods than the dominant player. More asymmetrical interactions decrease the probability of volunteerism of the dominant player; overall volunteerism increases with increasing relatedness.
    Chinese Science Bulletin 57(16). · 1.37 Impact Factor

Full-text (2 Sources)

Available from
May 31, 2014