Fork-tailed drongos use deceptive mimicked alarm calls to steal food

Tom Flower

Abstract

Despite the prevalence of vocal mimicry in animals, few functions for this behaviour have been shown. I propose a novel hypothesis that false mimicked alarm calls could be used deceptively to scare other species and steal their food. Studies have previously suggested that animals use their own species-specific alarm calls to steal food. However none have shown conclusively that these false alarms are deceptive, or that mimicked alarm calls are used in this manner. Here, I show that wild fork-tailed drongos (Dicrurus adsimilis) make both drongo-specific and mimicked false alarm calls when watching target species handling food, in response to which targets flee to cover abandoning their food. The drongo-specific and mimicked calls made in false alarms were structurally indistinguishable from calls made during true alarms at predators by drongos and other species. Furthermore, I demonstrate by playback experiments that two of these species, meerkats (Suricata suricatta) and pied babblers (Turdoides bicolor), are deceived by both drongo-specific and mimicked false alarm calls. These results provide the first conclusive evidence that false alarm calls are deceptive and demonstrate a novel function for vocal mimicry. This work also provides valuable insight into the benefits of deploying variable mimetic signals in deceptive communication.

  • Received September 8, 2010.
  • Accepted October 13, 2010.
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