Variation in and Meaning of Alarm Calls in a Social Desert Rodent Rhombomys opimus


Corresponding author: J. A. Randall, Department of Biology, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA 94132, USA. E-mail:


The great gerbil (Rhombomys opimus), a social rodent that lives in family groups, emits three different alarm vocalizations in the presence of predators: a rhythmic call; a faster more intense call; and a single whistle. We tested the hypothesis that the alarm calls communicate risk of predation. We quantified the relationship between predator distance and type of alarm call via human approaches to gerbils. We also tested responses of focal adults in family groups to playback broadcasts of the different calls and controls of bird song and tape noise. Results showed that alarm calls were related to distance from a predator. Gerbils gave the rhythmic call when the predator was farthest away, the more intense call as the predator moved closer; and a short whistle when startled by a close approach of the predator. Gerbils stopped feeding and stood vigilant in a frozen alert posture in response to playbacks of all three alarm calls. They decreased non-vigilant behavior to the alarm vocalizations more than to the controls and decreased non-vigilant behavior significantly more in response to the intense alarm and whistle compared with the rhythmic alarm. We conclude that one function of gerbil alarm calls is to communicate response urgency to family members. The rhythmic alarm communicates danger at a distance, whereas the intense alarm and whistle signal the close approach of a predator.