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Proc Biol Sci. 2003 Sep 7;270(1526):1765-71.

Mother-lamb acoustic recognition in sheep: a frequency coding.

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Behavioural Ecology Group, CEFE-CNRS, 1919 Route de Mende, F-34293 Montpellier Cedex 5, France.


Ewes of the domestic sheep ( Ovis aries ) display selective maternal investment by restricting care to their own offspring and rejecting alien young. This trait relies on individual recognition processes between ewes and lambs. Whereas identification at the udder is only olfactory, distance recognition is performed through visual and acoustic cues. We studied the effectiveness and modalities of mutual acoustic recognition between ewes and lambs by spectrographic analysis of their vocal signatures and by playbacks of modified calls in the field. Our results show that ewes and their lambs can recognize each other based solely on their calls. The coding of identity within the vocal signatures, previously unknown in sheep, is similar in lamb and ewe: it uses the mean frequency and the spectral energy distribution of the call, namely the timbre of the call. These results point out a simple signature system in sheep that uses only the frequency domain. This engenders a signal with low information content, as opposed to some highly social birds and mammal species that may integrate information both in the temporal and spectral domains. The simplicity of this system is linked to the roles played by vision and olfaction that corroborate the information brought by the vocal signature.

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