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Vocal plasticity in a reptile

Brumm, Henrik and Zollinger, Sue Anne (2017) Vocal plasticity in a reptile. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 284. ISSN 0962-8452

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Abstract

Sophisticated vocal communication systems of birds and mammals, including human speech, are characterized by a high degree of plasticity in which signals are individually adjusted in response to changes in the environment. Here, we present, to our knowledge, the first evidence for vocal plasticity in a reptile. Like birds and mammals, tokay geckos (Gekko gecko) increased the duration of brief call notes in the presence of broadcast noise compared to quiet conditions, a behaviour that facilitates signal detection by receivers. By contrast, they did not adjust the amplitudes of their call syllables in noise (the Lombard effect), which is in line with the hypothesis that the Lombard effect has evolved independently in birds and mammals. However, the geckos used a different strategy to increase signal-to-noise ratios: instead of increasing the amplitude of a given call type when exposed to noise, the subjects produced more high-amplitude syllable types from their repertoire. Our findings demonstrate that reptile vocalizations are much more flexible than previously thought, including elaborate vocal plasticity that is also important for the complex signalling systems of birds and mammals. We suggest that signal detection constraints are one of the major forces driving the evolution of animal communication systems across different taxa.

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