A cross-species framework to identify vocal learning abilities in mammals

Ravignani, A., & Garcia, M. (2022). A cross-species framework to identify vocal learning abilities in mammals. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 377: 20200394. doi:10.1098/rstb.2020.0394.
Vocal production learning (VPL) is the experience-driven ability to produce novel vocal signals through imitation or modification of existing vocalizations. A parallel strand of research investigates acoustic allometry, namely how information about body size is conveyed by acoustic signals. Recently, we proposed that deviation from acoustic allometry principles as a result of sexual selection may have been an intermediate step towards the evolution of vocal learning abilities in mammals. Adopting a more hypothesis-neutral stance, here we perform phylogenetic regressions and other analyses further testing a potential link between VPL and being an allometric outlier. We find that multiple species belonging to VPL clades deviate from allometric scaling but in the opposite direction to that expected from size exaggeration mechanisms. In other words, our correlational approach finds an association between VPL and being an allometric outlier. However, the direction of this association, contra our original hypothesis, may indicate that VPL did not necessarily emerge via sexual selection for size exaggeration: VPL clades show higher vocalization frequencies than expected. In addition, our approach allows us to identify species with potential for VPL abilities: we hypothesize that those outliers from acoustic allometry lying above the regression line may be VPL species. Our results may help better understand the cross-species diversity, variability and aetiology of VPL, which among other things is a key underpinning of speech in our species.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘Voice modulation: from origin and mechanism to social impact (Part II)’.
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