Alarm calls of Belding's ground squirrels to aerial predators: nepotism or self-preservation?
Belding's ground squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi) give acoustically distinct alarm calls to aerial and terrestrial predators. The animals typically give multiple-note trills to predatory mammals, and single-note whistles to flying hawks. During a 9-year study of free-living S. beldingi at Tioga Pass, California, the adaptive significance of the whistle call was investigated. Data were gathered on 664 ground squirrel-hawk interactions, most of which were induced by flying trained raptors over individually marked study animals of known sex and age. The sight of a flying hawk and the sound of whistles stimulated widespread calling and running to shelter by the ground squirrels (Fig. 1). Wild raptors were rarely successful at capturing the rodents once a whistle had been given, and fewer callers than noncallers were killed (Table 1). Individuals of both sexes and all ages whistled equally often (Fig. 4), and females' tendencies to whistle were not affected by the presence of relatives, including offspring (Fig. 5). The most frequent callers were animals in exposed positions: far from cover and close to the predatory bird (Table 2). Taken together the data suggest that unlike trills, which increase vulnerability to terrestrial predators (Table 1) and function to warn relatives, whistle directly benefit callers by increasing their chances of escaping from hawks.