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Abstract

We studied the degree to which alpine marmot (Marmota marmota L.) alarm calls function as communication about specific external stimuli. Alpine marmots emit variable alarm calls when they encounter humans, dogs, and several species of aerial predators. The first part of the study involved observations and manipulations designed to document contextual variation in alarm calls. Alarm calls varied along several acoustic parameters, but only along one that we examined, the number of notes per call, was significantly correlated with the type of external stimulus. Marmots were more likely to emit single-note alarm calls as their first or only call in response to an aerial stimulus, and multiple-note alarm calls when first calling to a terrestrial stimulus. This relationship was not without exceptions; there was considerable variation in the number of notes they emitted to both aerial and terrestrial stimuli, and a single stimulus type — humans — elicited a wide range of acoustic responses. The second part of the study involved playing back three types of alarm calls to marmots and observing their responses. Marmots did not have overtly different responses to the three types of played-back alarm calls. Our results are consistent with the hypotheses that: 1. Alarm calls do not refer to specific external stimuli; 2. Alarm calls function to communicate the degree of risk a caller experiences; and 3. Alarm calls require additional contextual cues to be properly interpreted by conspecifics.