Nordic rattle: the hoarse vocalization and the inflatable laryngeal air sac of reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)


Dr R. Frey, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), Berlin, Germany. E:


Laryngeal air sacs have evolved convergently in diverse mammalian lineages including insectivores, bats, rodents, pinnipeds, ungulates and primates, but their precise function has remained elusive. Among cervids, the vocal tract of reindeer has evolved an unpaired inflatable ventrorostral laryngeal air sac. This air sac is not present at birth but emerges during ontogenetic development. It protrudes from the laryngeal vestibulum via a short duct between the epiglottis and the thyroid cartilage. In the female the growth of the air sac stops at the age of 2–3 years, whereas in males it continues to grow up to the age of about 6 years, leading to a pronounced sexual dimorphism of the air sac. In adult females it is of moderate size (about 100 cm3), whereas in adult males it is large (3000–4000 cm3) and becomes asymmetric extending either to the left or to the right side of the neck. In both adult females and males the ventral air sac walls touch the integument. In the adult male the air sac is laterally covered by the mandibular portion of the sternocephalic muscle and the skin. Both sexes of reindeer have a double stylohyoid muscle and a thyroepiglottic muscle. Possibly these muscles assist in inflation of the air sac. Head-and-neck specimens were subjected to macroscopic anatomical dissection, computer tomographic analysis and skeletonization. In addition, isolated larynges were studied for comparison. Acoustic recordings were made during an autumn round-up of semi-domestic reindeer in Finland and in a small zoo herd. Male reindeer adopt a specific posture when emitting their serial hoarse rutting calls. Head and neck are kept low and the throat region is extended. In the ventral neck region, roughly corresponding to the position of the large air sac, there is a mane of longer hairs. Neck swelling and mane spreading during vocalization may act as an optical signal to other males and females. The air sac, as a side branch of the vocal tract, can be considered as an additional acoustic filter. Individual acoustic recognition may have been the primary function in the evolution of a size-variable air sac, and this function is retained in mother–young communication. In males sexual selection seems to have favoured a considerable size increase of the air sac and a switch to call series instead of single calls. Vocalization became restricted to the rutting period serving the attraction of females. We propose two possibilities for the acoustic function of the air sac in vocalization that do not exclude each other. The first assumes a coupling between air sac and the environment, resulting in an acoustic output that is a combination of the vocal tract resonance frequencies emitted via mouth and nostrils and the resonance frequencies of the air sac transmitted via the neck skin. The second assumes a weak coupling so that resonance frequencies of the air sac are lost to surrounding tissues by dissipation. In this case the resonance frequencies of the air sac solely influence the signal that is further filtered by the remaining vocal tract. According to our results one acoustic effect of the air sac in adult reindeer might be to mask formants of the vocal tract proper. In other cervid species, however, formants of rutting calls convey essential information on the quality of the sender, related to its potential reproductive success, to conspecifics. Further studies are required to solve this inconsistency.