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Am Nat. 2007 Jun;169(6):758-67. Epub 2007 Apr 4.

Motivation before meaning: motivational information encoded in meerkat alarm calls develops earlier than referential information.

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  • 1Verhaltensbiologie, Zoologisches Institut, Universitat Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. lindah@zool.uzh.ch

Abstract

In contrast to historical assumptions about the affective nature of animal vocalizations, it is now clear that many vertebrates are capable of producing specific alarm calls in response to different predators, calls that provide information that goes beyond the motivational state of a caller. However, although these calls function referentially, it does not mean that they are devoid of motivational content. Studies on meerkats (Suricata suricatta) directly support this conclusion. The acoustic structure of their alarm calls simultaneously encodes information that is both motivational (level of urgency) and referential (predator specific). In this study, we investigated whether alarm calls of young meerkats undergo developmental modification and whether the motivational or the referential aspect of calls changes more over time. We found that, based on their acoustic structure, calls of young showed a high correct assignment to low- and high-urgency contexts but, in contrast to adults, low assignment to specific predator types. However, the discrimination among predator types was better in high-urgency than in low-urgency contexts. Our results suggest that acoustic features related to level of urgency are expressed earlier than those related to predator-specific information and may support the idea that referential calls evolve from motivational signals.

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