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Abstract

Alarm vocalizations produced by prey species encountering predators can serve a variety of functions. North American red squirrels are a small-bodied mammal popularly known for producing loud, conspicuous alarm calls, but functional accounts of calling in this species are few and contradictory. We conducted research over a 3-yr period on a sample of 47 marked red squirrels in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. We recorded the production of alarm calls during encounters with natural predators and in a series of simulated predator experiments. We tested for variation in call production patterns consistent with three traditional hypotheses concerning the conspecific warning functions of alarm calling: namely that they serve as warnings to kin, to potential mates, or to territorial neighbors with which callers have an established relationship. Patterns of calling did not provide clear support for any of these hypothesized functions. We consider several possible qualifications to our results. We also consider the possibility that conspicuous calls given by red squirrels during encounters with predators are directed at the predators themselves and function to announce their detection and possibly deter them. This possibility is consistent with additional life-history features of red squirrels including that they are a relatively solitary and territorial, food-hoarding species that produces the same conspicuous vocalizations in response to other squirrels intruding on their territory to steal cones. An important corollary of this account is that red squirrel alarm calls probably do not entail referentially specific messages about different types of predator, as proposed previously.