, Volume 62, Issue 3, pp 457-468

Do yellow-bellied marmots respond to predator vocalizations?

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Abstract

We conducted four experiments to determine whether yellow-bellied marmots, Marmota flaviventris, discriminate among predator vocalizations, and if so, whether the recognition mechanism is learned or experience-independent. First, we broadcast to marmots the social sounds of coyotes, Canis latrans, wolves, Canis lupus, and golden eagles, Aquila chrysaetos, as well as conspecific alarm calls. Coyotes and eagles are extant predators at our study site, while wolves have been absent since the mid-1930s. In three follow-up experiments, we reversed the eagle call and presented marmots with forward and reverse calls to control for response to general properties of call structure rather than those specifically associated with eagles, we tested for novelty by comparing responses to familiar and unfamiliar birds, and we tested for the duration of predator sounds by comparing a wolf howl (that was much longer than the coyote in the first experiment) with a long coyote howl of equal duration to the original wolf. Marmots suppressed foraging and increased looking most after presentation of the conspecific alarm call and least after that of the coyote in the first experiment, with moderate responses to wolf and eagle calls. Marmots responded more to the forward eagle call than the reverse call, a finding consistent with a recognition template. Marmots did not differentiate vocalizations from the novel and familiar birds, suggesting that novelty itself did not explain our results. Furthermore, marmots did not differentiate between a wolf howl and a coyote howl of equal duration, suggesting that the duration of the vocalizations played a role in the marmots’ response. Our results show that marmots may respond to predators based solely on acoustic stimuli. The response to currently novel wolf calls suggests that they have an experience-independent ability to identify certain predators acoustically. Marmots’ response to predator vocalizations is not unexpected because 25 of 30 species in which acoustic predator discrimination has been studied have a demonstrated ability to respond selectively to cues from their predators.

Communicated by P. Bednekoff