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Call order within vocal sequences of meerkats contains temporary contextual and individual information


Rauber, Ramona; Kranstauber, Bart; Manser, Marta (2020). Call order within vocal sequences of meerkats contains temporary contextual and individual information. BMC Biology, 18:119.

Abstract

Background
The ability to recombine smaller units to produce infinite structures of higher-order phrases is unique to human language, yet evidence of animals to combine multiple acoustic units into meaningful combinations increases constantly. Despite increasing evidence for meaningful call combinations across contexts, little attention has been paid to the potential role of temporal variation of call type composition in longer vocal sequences in conveying information about subtle changes in the environment or individual differences. Here, we investigated the composition and information content of sentinel call sequences in meerkats (Suricata suricatta). While being on sentinel guard, a coordinated vigilance behaviour, meerkats produce long sequences composed of six distinct sentinel call types and alarm calls. We analysed recordings of sentinels to test if the order of the call types is graded and whether they contain additional group-, individual-, age- or sex-specific vocal signatures.

Results
Our results confirmed that the six distinct types of sentinel calls in addition to alarm calls were produced in a highly graded way, likely referring to changes in the perceived predation risk. Transitions between call types one step up or down the a priory assumed gradation were over-represented, while transitions over two or three steps were significantly under-represented. Analysing sequence similarity within and between groups and individuals demonstrated that sequences composed of the most commonly emitted sentinel call types showed high within-individual consistency whereby adults and females had higher consistency scores than subadults and males respectively.

Conclusions
We present a novel type of combinatoriality where the order of the call types contains temporary contextual information, and also relates to the identity of the caller. By combining different call types in a graded way over long periods, meerkats constantly convey meaningful information about subtle changes in the external environment, while at the same time the temporal pattern of the distinct call types contains stable information about caller identity. Our study demonstrates how complex animal call sequences can be described by simple rules, in this case gradation across acoustically distinct, but functionally related call types, combined with individual-specific call patterns.

Abstract

Background
The ability to recombine smaller units to produce infinite structures of higher-order phrases is unique to human language, yet evidence of animals to combine multiple acoustic units into meaningful combinations increases constantly. Despite increasing evidence for meaningful call combinations across contexts, little attention has been paid to the potential role of temporal variation of call type composition in longer vocal sequences in conveying information about subtle changes in the environment or individual differences. Here, we investigated the composition and information content of sentinel call sequences in meerkats (Suricata suricatta). While being on sentinel guard, a coordinated vigilance behaviour, meerkats produce long sequences composed of six distinct sentinel call types and alarm calls. We analysed recordings of sentinels to test if the order of the call types is graded and whether they contain additional group-, individual-, age- or sex-specific vocal signatures.

Results
Our results confirmed that the six distinct types of sentinel calls in addition to alarm calls were produced in a highly graded way, likely referring to changes in the perceived predation risk. Transitions between call types one step up or down the a priory assumed gradation were over-represented, while transitions over two or three steps were significantly under-represented. Analysing sequence similarity within and between groups and individuals demonstrated that sequences composed of the most commonly emitted sentinel call types showed high within-individual consistency whereby adults and females had higher consistency scores than subadults and males respectively.

Conclusions
We present a novel type of combinatoriality where the order of the call types contains temporary contextual information, and also relates to the identity of the caller. By combining different call types in a graded way over long periods, meerkats constantly convey meaningful information about subtle changes in the external environment, while at the same time the temporal pattern of the distinct call types contains stable information about caller identity. Our study demonstrates how complex animal call sequences can be described by simple rules, in this case gradation across acoustically distinct, but functionally related call types, combined with individual-specific call patterns.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:07 Faculty of Science > Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
Dewey Decimal Classification:570 Life sciences; biology
590 Animals (Zoology)
Scopus Subject Areas:Life Sciences > Biotechnology
Life Sciences > Structural Biology
Life Sciences > Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
Life Sciences > Physiology
Life Sciences > General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
Life Sciences > General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
Life Sciences > Plant Science
Life Sciences > Developmental Biology
Life Sciences > Cell Biology
Language:English
Date:9 September 2020
Deposited On:22 Feb 2021 08:28
Last Modified:23 Feb 2021 21:00
Publisher:BioMed Central
ISSN:1741-7007
OA Status:Gold
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-020-00847-8

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