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Am Nat. 2010 Oct;176(4):456-64. doi: 10.1086/655428.

Behavioral plasticity allows short-term adjustment to a novel environment.

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  • 1Institute of Zoology, University of Zurich, Switzerland.


Many species are currently experiencing anthropogenically driven environmental changes. Among these changes, increasing noise levels are specifically a problem for species relying on acoustic communication. Recent evidence suggests that some species adjust their acoustic signals to man-made noise. However, it is unknown whether these changes occur through short-term and reversible adjustments by behavioral plasticity or through long-term adaptations by evolutionary change. Using behavioral observations and playback experiments, we show that male reed buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus) adjusted their songs immediately, singing at a higher minimum frequency and at a lower rate when noise levels were high. Our data showed that these changes in singing behavior were short-term adjustments of signal characteristics resulting from behavioral plasticity, rather than a long-term adaptation. However, more males remained unpaired at a noisy location than at a quiet location throughout the breeding season. Thus, phenotypic plasticity enables individuals to respond to environmental changes, but whether these short-term adjustments are beneficial remains to be seen.

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