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J Morphol. 2013 Mar;274(3):307-19. doi: 10.1002/jmor.20092. Epub 2012 Dec 8.

The anatomy of vocal divergence in North American Elk and European red deer.

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Department of Reproduction Management, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, Germany.


Loud and frequent vocalizations play an important role in courtship behavior in Cervus species. European red deer (Cervus elaphus) produce low-pitched calls, whereas North American elk (Cervus canadensis) produce high-pitched calls, which is remarkable for one of the biggest land mammals. Both species engage their vocal organs in elaborate maneuvers but the precise mechanism is unknown. Vocal organs were compared by macroscopic and microscopic dissection. The larynx is sexually dimorphic in red deer but not in elk. The laryngeal lumen is more constricted in elk, and narrows further during ontogeny. Several elements of the hyoid skeleton and two of four vocal tract segments are longer in red deer than in elk allowing greater vocal tract expansion and elongation. We conclude that elk submit the larynx and vocal tract to much higher tension than red deer, whereby, enormously stressed vocal folds of reduced effective length create a high resistance glottal source. The narrow, high impedance laryngeal vestibulum matches glottal and vocal tract impedance allowing maximum power transfer. In red deer longer and relaxed vocal folds create a less resistant glottal source and a wider vestibulum matches the low glottal impedance to the vocal tract, thereby also ensuring maximum power transfer.

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