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The Sound of Arousal: The Addition of Novel Non-linearities Increases Responsiveness in Marmot Alarm Calls


Daniel T. Blumstein, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of California, 621 Young Drive South, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1606, USA.


Vocal structure should reflect vocal function. While much attention has focused on quantifying attributes of harmonic vocalizations, the vocalizations of many species also may contain non-linear phenomena such as warbles, subharmonics, biphonation, and deterministic chaos or noise. The function of these non-linearities remains enigmatic. In some species, harmonic vocalizations abruptly become ‘noisy’ when individuals are physiologically aroused and the sudden onset of these non-linearities could signal arousal or fear to receivers. One untested functional hypothesis is that vocalizations containing non-linearities are more variable from one rendition to the next, and thus are harder to habituate to. In some situations, reducing the likelihood of habituation could be important. Signals that are highly evocative are more difficult to habituate to. Thus, we conducted playback experiments to foraging yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) to determine whether the addition of white noise (a non-linear acoustic phenomenon) to alarm calls elicited a greater response than control calls without the non-linearity or control calls with silence, rather than noise, added to them. Marmots spent less time foraging after hearing calls that included noise than after normal or control calls. This result is consistent with the unpredictability hypothesis and suggests that the adaptive value of non-linearities is to prevent habituation.