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Plasticity of Alarm-call Response Development in Belding’s Ground Squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi, Sciuridae)


Corresponding author: J. M. Mateo, Department of Psychology, 229 Uris Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853–7601, USA. E-mail:


Plasticity in the alarm-call responses of Belding’s ground squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi) may function to prepare young to respond appropriately to calls according to the predator environment and habitat in which the young develop. To examine the extent to which antipredator responses are sensitive to early rearing environments, we studied the development of behavioural responses to playbacks of alarm calls and non-alarm calls in free-living juveniles and captive juveniles housed in large outdoor enclosures. Compared with same-aged, free-living juveniles, captive juveniles were more likely to show an observable response to playbacks, exhibited more exaggerated initial responses (e.g. enter a burrow vs. freeze), and remained alert longer following playbacks. The influence of rearing history on antipredator responses was limited to responses to auditory stimuli, as the two groups of juveniles reacted similarly to fast-moving visual stimuli. The responses of free-living juveniles appeared to be more discriminating than responses of captive juveniles, particularly following playbacks of calls associated with less immediate threats.

The responses of captive and free-living mothers were similar, indicating a developmental component to the juvenile response differences observed here. Free-living juveniles developed a discrimination among alarm and non-alarm calls sooner than captive young. Response differences were evident within 1 wk of first emergence from natal burrows and persisted at least 4 wk, at around the age of natal dispersal. This suggests that early rearing history has an enduring effect on response repertoires, which may be adaptive if animals continue to inhabit the predator environment in which they developed.