Ontogenetic changes in alarm-call production and usage in meerkats ( Suricata suricatta ): adaptations or constraints?

Hollén, Linda ; Clutton-Brock, Tim ; Manser, Marta

In: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 2008, vol. 62, no. 5, p. 821-829

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    In many species, individuals suffer major mortality in their first year because of predation. Behaviours that facilitate successful escape are therefore under strong selection, but anti-predator skills often emerge gradually during an individual's early development. Using long-term data and acoustic recordings of alarm calls collected during natural predator encounters, we aimed to elucidate two largely unsolved issues in anti-predator ontogeny: (1) whether incorrect predator assignment is adaptively age-appropriate, given that vulnerability often changes during development, or whether age-related differences reflect true mistakes made by immature individuals; and (2) the extent to which the development of adult-like competence in alarm-call production and usage is simply a function of maturational processes or dependent upon experience. We found that young meerkats (Suricata suricatta) were less likely to give alarm calls than adults, but alarmed more in response to non-threatening species compared to adults. However, stimuli that pose a greater threat to young than adults did not elicit more calling from young; this argues against age-related changes in vulnerability as the sole explanation for developmental changes in calling. Young in small groups, who were more likely to watch out for predators, alarmed more than less vigilant young in larger groups. Moreover, despite similarities in acoustic structure between alarm call types, calls appeared in the repertoire at different rates, and those that were associated with frequently encountered predators were produced relatively early on. These results indicate that experience is a more plausible explanation for such developmental trajectories than maturation