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Individual variation in pup vocalizations and absence of behavioral signs of maternal vocal recognition in Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii)

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Abstract

Individually stereotyped vocalizations often play an important role in relocation of offspring in gregarious breeders. In phocids, mothers often alternate between foraging at sea and attending their pup. Pup calls are individually distinctive in various phocid species. However, experimental evidence for maternal recognition is rare. In this study, we recorded Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) pup vocalizations at two whelping patches in Atka Bay, Antarctica, and explored individual vocal variation based on eight vocal parameters. Overall, 58% of calls were correctly classified according to individual. For males (n= 12) and females (n= 9), respectively, nine and seven individuals were correctly identified based on vocal parameters. To investigate whether mothers respond differently to calls of familiar vs. unfamiliar pups, we conducted playback experiments with 21 mothers. Maternal responses did not differ between playbacks of own, familiar, and unfamiliar pup calls. We suggest that Weddell seal pup calls may need to contain only a critical amount of individually distinct information because mothers and pups use a combination of sensory modalities for identification. However, it cannot be excluded that pup developmental factors and differing environmental factors between colonies affect pup acoustic behavior and the role of acoustic cues in the relocation process.

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