, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 693-704

Horse (Equus caballus) whinnies: a source of social information

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Abstract

Many animal species that rely mainly on calls to communicate produce individual acoustic structures, but we wondered whether individuals of species better known as visual communicants, with small vocal repertoires, would also exhibit individual distinctiveness in calls. Moreover, theoretical advances concerning the evolution of social intelligence are usually based on primate species data, but relatively little is known about the social cognitive capacities of non-primate mammals. However, some non-primate species demonstrate auditory recognition of social categories and possess mental representation of their social network. Horses (Equus caballus) form stable social networks and although they display a large range of visual signals, they also use long-distance whinny calls to maintain contact. Here, we investigated the potential existence of individual acoustic signatures in whinny calls and the ability of horses to discriminate by ear individuals varying in their degree of familiarity. Our analysis of the acoustic structure of whinnies of 30 adult domestic horses (ten stallions, ten geldings, ten mares) revealed that some of the frequency and temporal parameters carried reliable information about the caller’s sex, body size and identity. However, no correlations with age were found. Playback experiments evaluated the behavioural significance of this variability. Twelve horses heard either control white noise or whinnies emitted by group members, familiar neighbours or unfamiliar horses. While control sounds did not induce any particular response, horses discriminated the social category of the callers and reacted with a sound-specific behaviour (vigilance and attraction varied with familiarity). Our results support the existence of social knowledge in horses and suggest a process of vocal coding/decoding of information.