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Discriminating between similar alarm calls of contrasting function

Cite this dataset

Tegtman, Natalie T.; Magrath, Robert D. (2021). Discriminating between similar alarm calls of contrasting function [Dataset]. Dryad.


In a pioneering study of signal design, Marler (Marler 1955 Nature 176, 6–8; Marler 1957 Behav. 11, 13–37) argued that the contrasting acoustic design of hawk (seet) and mobbing alarm calls of European passerines reflected their contrasting function. Hawk alarms were high-frequency tones, warning con- specifics to flee but making localization difficult for predators, while mobbing calls were broadband and harsh, allowing easy localization and approach. Contrasting signal features are also consistent with signal detec- tion theory. Discriminating these calls quickly is critical for survival, because hawk alarms require immediate escape. These signals should there- fore be selected to be easy to discriminate, reducing the trade-off between immediate fleeing to hawk alarms and unnecessary fleeing to mobbing alarms. Despite these expectations, hawk and mobbing alarm calls of superb fairy-wrens, Malurus cyaneus, are surprisingly similar, raising the question of discriminability without contextual cues. We synthesized these calls on computer, made intermediates and used playbacks to test whether calls can be discriminated acoustically, and if so by what features. We found that birds used multiple acoustic features when discriminating calls, allowing fast discrimination despite overlap in individual parameters. We speculate that the similarity of fairy-wren alarm calls could enhance detect- ability of both signals, while multiple subtle acoustic differences reduce a trade-off with discriminability.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘Signal detection theory in recognition systems: from evolving models to experimental tests’.


Australian Research Council, Award: DP150102632