The acoustic structure of suricates' alarm calls varies with predator type and the level of response urgency

Marta B. Manser


The variation in the acoustic structure of alarm calls appears to convey information about the level of response urgency in some species, while in others it seems to denote the type of predator. While theoretical models and studies on species with functionally referential calls have emphasized that any animal signal considered to have an external referent also includes motivational content, to our knowledge, no empirical study has been able to show this. In this paper, I present an example of a graded alarm call system that combines referential information and also information on the level of urgency. Acoustically different alarm calls in the social mongoose Suricata suricatta are given in response to different predator types, but their call structure also varies depending on the level of urgency. Low urgency calls tend to be harmonic across all predator types, while high urgency calls are noisier. There was less evidence for consistency in the acoustic parameters assigned to particular predator types across different levels of urgency. This suggests that, while suricates convey information about the level of urgency along a general rule, the referential information about each category of predator type is not encoded in an obvious way.