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Syntax manipulation changes perception of mobbing call sequences across passerine species

Abstract : Many species approach predators to harass them and drive them away. Both the intensity of this antipredator strategy and its success are positively related to the size of the group that carries out this mobbing. To recruit individuals to the mob, members of prey species produce mobbing calls. In some songbirds—the Japanese tit, Parus minor, and the southern pied babbler, Turdoides bicolor—mobbing calls are structurally complex and it has been suggested that they convey information by means of compositional syntax, when meaningful items are combined into larger units. These two species combine alert and recruitment calls into an alert and recruitment sequence when attracting conspecifics to cooperate in mobbing a predator. Whether this rudimentary, two‐call, compositional structure is used by other bird species in mobbing calls and how it can alter the ability of heterospecifics to adequately recognize mobbing calls is not well understood. Heterospecifics’ responses to mobs are critical to the success of the mobbing strategy, so it is of great importance to understand whether and how syntax influences these responses. To address these questions, we conducted two playback experiments. Firstly, we investigated whether the great tit, Parus major, extracts different meanings from different individual motifs (i.e., component calls), and from combined motifs in both natural and artificially reversed order. We found that great tits extract different meanings from the two motifs involved in mobbing calls and that they also discriminate for motif order reversal in the mobbing call sequence. Secondly, we investigated whether heterospecifics (the coal tit, Periparus ater, and the common chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs) are sensitive to syntax alteration of great tit mobbing calls. While chaffinches did not respond to great tit mobbing calls, coal tits were sensitive to mobbing call sequence reversal although they did not react in the same way as conspecific subjects. Overall, whereas our results indicate that tits are sensitive to call reversal, this is not to say that tits actually use compositional syntax to increase the information content.
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Submitted on : Tuesday, November 16, 2021 - 10:32:32 AM
Last modification on : Tuesday, January 4, 2022 - 6:14:09 AM

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Mylène Dutour, Thierry Lengagne, Jean-Paul Léna. Syntax manipulation changes perception of mobbing call sequences across passerine species. Ethology, Wiley, 2019, 125 (9), pp.635-644. ⟨10.1111/eth.12915⟩. ⟨hal-02310401⟩

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