Song in a Social and Sexual Context: Vocalizations Signal Identity and Rank in Both Sexes of a Cooperative Breeder


In most songbirds, both sexes produce calls, or short vocalizations used to coordinate behaviors and maintain social cohesion. In contrast, songs are longer, more elaborate vocalizations typically only produced by males in behavioral contexts shaped by sexual selection operating through female choice. However, both males and females sing in many cooperatively breeding species, including the superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus). In this species, both sexes produce songs and calls composed of sequences of temporally discrete elements called motifs. Calls signal social group and individual identity, but the function of songs is currently unknown. Because superb starlings often sing in groups, song could be used not only in a sexual context, but also to signal identity and rank within the separate dominance hierarchies observed in males and females. To determine whether songs are used in mate attraction (sexually selected) and/or to influence social rank (socially selected), we compared song diversity with three potential indicators of fitness and dominance: social status, the number of seasons spent breeding, and age. We found that age is correlated with song diversity in both males and females, suggesting that (1) these signals serve similar purposes in both sexes, and (2) song diversity is likely the result of selection by both mutual mate choice and social competition. To test whether songs carry a signal of individuality, we applied spectrogram dynamic time warping to measure pairwise similarity among song motifs, and then calculated motif similarity within and between individuals. We found that motif similarity is higher within individuals than between individuals, suggesting that songs signal individual identity, which may help to establish social rank. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that superb starling vocal behavior in each sex is shaped by both social and sexual selection. Additionally, because call motifs are also used in songs, our data suggest that at least some vocal building blocks have evolved to convey multiple signaler traits and to facilitate complex social and sexual interactions in different contexts.

Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Dr. July Pilowsky
Dr. July Pilowsky
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Computational ecologist using models to understand the natural world.