How is model selection determined in a vocal mimic?: Tests of five hypotheses

in Behaviour
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Many animal species imitate the sounds of other species, but we know little about why vocal mimics copy some species while failing to copy other species, i.e., ‘model selection’. In this observational study of free-living northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos), I tested five hypotheses of model selection: (1) Proximity hypothesis: preferential imitation of species found in close proximity to the vocal mimic, (2) Aggression hypothesis: preferential imitation of species with which the mimic interacts aggressively, (3) Passive sampling hypothesis: preferential imitation of species heard frequently by the mimic, (4) Acoustic similarity hypothesis: preferential imitation of species whose sounds are acoustically similar to the non-imitative songs of the vocal mimic and (5) Alarm hypothesis: preferential imitation of alarm-associated vocalisations. The data supported only the acoustic similarity hypothesis. Given that this hypothesis has been supported in two additional mimicking lineages, it suggests a potential non-adaptive explanation for the evolution of vocal mimicry. Species that learn vocalisations are already predisposed toward learning sounds with key acoustic characteristics. Whenever natural selection favours a widening of the auditory template that guides model selection, vocal imitation of heterospecifics becomes more likely because of ‘learning mistakes’.

How is model selection determined in a vocal mimic?: Tests of five hypotheses

in Behaviour



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    Spectrograms demonstrating vocal mimicry in northern mockingbirds.

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    Five acoustic measurements were made for 161 potential model vocalisations taken from 76 different species, as well as for mockingbird-specific song: (1) repetition of elements or clusters of elements (not shown), (2) delivery rate for expiratory units (shown for Carolina wren song and eastern towhee song, ‘expiratory unit’ = vocal output that a mockingbird could produce during a single expiration), (3) maximum duration of an expiratory unit (shown for Carolina wren song and eastern towhee song), (4) high frequency limit (shown for killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) dee call and mockingbird-specific song) and (5) low frequency limit (shown for killdeer dee call and mockingbird-specific song).

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    Examples of heterospecific vocalisations that are acoustically similar and dissimilar to mockingbird-specific song. Acoustic similarity values ranged from 0.54 to 3.89. A high value indicates that heterospecifics produce the vocalisation using acoustic features similar to the average mockingbird-specific song. Based on the physiological production mechanisms described by Zollinger & Suthers (2004), mockingbirds would have extreme difficulty producing the long and low-pitched syllables of the mourning dove coo song, and the long, rapid, high-pitched trill of the chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) song. Acoustically similar vocalisations, such as the tufted titmouse song and northern cardinal song, were frequently mimicked, but acoustically dissimilar vocalisations, such as the mourning dove coo and the chipping sparrow song, were usually not mimicked by mockingbirds.


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