To seek or speak? Dual function of an acoustic signal limits its versatility in communication

Journal Article


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title

Animal Behaviour

Journal ISSN
Volume Title

Elsevier Ltd


University of Cape Town

The perception of different attributes of conspecifics is an integral part of intraspecific communication. It can facilitate the recognition of interaction partners or the assessment of potential mates. Acoustic signals can encode fine-scaled information through the interplay of acoustic variability and specificity. A reliable vocal signature is both unique within a class and variable between classes. Therefore, acoustic complexity might be associated with the number of classes to be discriminated. We investigated the assumption that limitations to signal design may affect the communicative functionality of a signal. To do so, we chose a signal with potentially dual functionality which may therefore display such limitations. In bats, echolocation is used primarily for foraging and orientation but there is increasing support for its additional role in communication. An acoustic analysis of echolocation pulses of the bat Rhinolophus clivosus confirmed sex and individual vocal signatures in echolocation pulses. A habituation edishabituation playback experiment suggested that bats perceived these signatures because listening bats clearly discriminated between the sexes (two classes) and between individuals (representatives of a multiclass category), although to different degrees. The simple acoustic structure of these vocalizations provides sufficient specificity for sex discrimination but has limitations for individual discrimination because pulse parameters of individuals increasingly overlapped with increasing group size. We conclude that selection for the primary function of echolocation restricts the acoustic space available for communication. However, we frequently observed echolocation pulses with conspicuous structural modifications. Statistical analyses revealed that these vocalizations yielded increased individual distinctiveness. Such added systematic variation may indicate a communicative function and perhaps a signalling intent of the emitter, although the latter has yet to be tested. The findings suggest that the required specificity for effective communication could be obtained through modification of echolocation variants when adaptations for orientation and foraging constrain the evolution of complex communication signatures.