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Lombard effect onset times reveal the speed of vocal plasticity in a songbird

Hardman, Samuel L. and Zollinger, Sue Anne and Koselj, Klemen and Leitner, Stefan and Marshall, Rupert C. and Brumm, Henrik (2017) Lombard effect onset times reveal the speed of vocal plasticity in a songbird. Journal of Experimental Biology. ISSN 0022-0949

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Abstract

Animals that use vocal signals to communicate often compensate for interference and masking from background noise by raising the amplitude of their vocalisations. This response has been termed the Lombard effect. However, despite more than a century of research, little is known how quickly animals can adjust the amplitude of their vocalisations after the onset of noise. The ability to respond quickly to increases in noise levels would allow animals to avoid signal masking and ensure their calls continue to be heard, even if they are interrupted by sudden bursts of high-amplitude noise. We tested how quickly singing male canaries (Serinus canaria) exhibit the Lombard effect by exposing them to short playbacks of white noise and measuring the speed of their responses. We show that canaries exhibit the Lombard effect in as little as 300 ms after the onset of noise and are also able to increase the amplitude of their songs mid-song and mid-phrase without pausing. Our results demonstrate high vocal plasticity in this species and suggest that birds are able to adjust the amplitude of their vocalisations very rapidly to ensure they can still be heard even during sudden changes in background noise levels.

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