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Anim Behav. 2000 Jul;60(1):1-11.

The different roles of social learning in vocal communication.

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Biology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


While vocal learning has been studied extensively in birds and mammals, little effort has been made to define what exactly constitutes vocal learning and to classify the forms that it may take. We present such a theoretical framework for the study of social learning in vocal communication. We define different forms of social learning that affect communication and discuss the required methodology to show each one. We distinguish between contextual and production learning in animal communication. Contextual learning affects the behavioural context or serial position of a signal. It can affect both usage and comprehension. Production learning refers to instances where the signals themselves are modified in form as a result of experience with those of other individuals. Vocal learning is defined as production learning in the vocal domain. It can affect one or more of three systems: the respiratory, phonatory and filter systems. Each involves a different level of control over the sound production apparatus. We hypothesize that contextual learning and respiratory production learning preceded the evolution of phonatory and filter production learning. Each form of learning potentially increases the complexity of a communication system. We also found that unexpected genetic or environmental factors can have considerable effects on vocal behaviour in birds and mammals and are often more likely to cause changes or differences in vocalizations than investigators may assume. Finally, we discuss how production learning is used in innovation and invention, and present important future research questions.


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