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Open Access Research article

Segmental concatenation of individual signatures and context cues in banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) close calls

David AWAM Jansen1*, Michael A Cant2 and Marta B Manser1

Author Affiliations

1 Animal Behaviour, Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland

2 Daphne du Maurier, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus, TR10 9EZ, UK

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BMC Biology 2012, 10:97  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-10-97

Published: 3 December 2012

Abstract

Background

All animals are anatomically constrained in the number of discrete call types they can produce. Recent studies suggest that by combining existing calls into meaningful sequences, animals can increase the information content of their vocal repertoire despite these constraints. Additionally, signalers can use vocal signatures or cues correlated to other individual traits or contexts to increase the information encoded in their vocalizations. However, encoding multiple vocal signatures or cues using the same components of vocalizations usually reduces the signals' reliability. Segregation of information could effectively circumvent this trade-off. In this study we investigate how banded mongooses (Mungos mungo) encode multiple vocal signatures or cues in their frequently emitted graded single syllable close calls.

Results

The data for this study were collected on a wild, but habituated, population of banded mongooses. Using behavioral observations and acoustical analysis we found that close calls contain two acoustically different segments. The first being stable and individually distinct, and the second being graded and correlating with the current behavior of the individual, whether it is digging, searching or moving. This provides evidence of Marler's hypothesis on temporal segregation of information within a single syllable call type. Additionally, our work represents an example of an identity cue integrated as a discrete segment within a single call that is independent from context. This likely functions to avoid ambiguity between individuals or receivers having to keep track of several context-specific identity cues.

Conclusions

Our study provides the first evidence of segmental concatenation of information within a single syllable in non-human vocalizations. By reviewing descriptions of call structures in the literature, we suggest a general application of this mechanism. Our study indicates that temporal segregation and segmental concatenation of vocal signatures or cues is likely a common, but so far neglected, dimension of information coding in animal vocal communication. We argue that temporal segregation of vocal signatures and cues evolves in species where communication of multiple unambiguous signals is crucial, but is limited by the number of call types produced.

Keywords:
vocal signature; vocal cue; syllable; close call; segregation of information; graded calls; banded mongoose; segmental concatenation