Red squirrel territorial vocalizations deter intrusions by conspecific rivals

In: Behaviour
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  • a Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada
  • b School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
  • c Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
  • d Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Macdonald Campus, McGill University, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC, Canada
  • e Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
  • f Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
  • g Department of Biology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada

Abstract

In many species, territory advertisement is thought to be one of the primary functions of acoustic communication. North American red squirrels are a territorial species in which ‘rattles’ have long been thought to be the principal signal communicating territory ownership. These vocalizations have been assumed to deter intruders, thus reducing energetic costs and the risk of injury associated with direct aggressive interactions. However, this hypothesis has not been directly tested. Here we used a speaker occupation experiment to test whether red squirrel rattles function to deter conspecific rivals. We studied 29 male squirrels and removed each individual from his territory twice in a paired design. During the experimental treatment, we simulated the owner’s presence after its removal by broadcasting the owner’s rattle from a loudspeaker at the centre of the territory once every 7 min. During the control treatment, the territory was left in silence following the temporary removal of the owner. We found that the presence of a speaker replacement reduced the probability of intrusion by 34% and increased the latency to first intrusion by 7%, providing support for the hypothesis that rattles play an active role in reducing intrusion risk. However, intrusions were not completely averted by the speaker replacement, indicating that for some individuals vocalizations alone are not a sufficient deterrent without other cues of the territory owner.

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