Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 69–94

Physical constraints on acoustic communication in the atmosphere: Implications for the evolution of animal vocalizations

  • R. Haven Wiley
  • Douglas G. Richards

DOI: 10.1007/BF00300047

Cite this article as:
Wiley, R.H. & Richards, D.G. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (1978) 3: 69. doi:10.1007/BF00300047


  1. 1.

    Acoustic communication requires not only detection of the signal but also discrimination of differences among signals by the receiver. Attenuation and degradation of acoustic signals during transmission through the atmosphere will impose limits on acoustic communication. Attenuation of sound during atmospheric transmission results primarily from atmospheric absorption, ground attenuation, scattering of a sound beam, and deflection of sound by stratified media. For maximum range of detection, therefore, animals should favor optimal positions in their habitat and optimal weather conditions. Frequency-dependent attenuation seems not to differ consistently among major classes of terrestrial habitats, such as forests and fields. Increased scattering of higher frequencies from vegetation in forests is in part matched by scattering from micrometerological heterogeneities in the open.

  2. 2.

    In addition to frequency-dependent attenuation, two kinds of degradation during atmospheric transmission will limit a receiver's ability to resolve differences among acoustic signals: the accumulation of irregular amplitude fluctuations from nonstationary heterogeneities, often atmospheric turbulence, and reverberation. Both types of degradation affect temporal patterns of amplitude or intensity modulation more than patterns of frequency modulation. Both effects should increase with carrier frequency, as they depend on the relationship between wavelength and the dimensions of scattering heterogeneities. Irregular amplitude fluctuations are more severe in open habitats and primarily mask low frequencies of amplitude modulation; reverberations are more severe in forested habitats and primarily mask high frequencies of amplitude modulation and rapid, repetitive frequency modulation. This difference between forested and open habitats could explain previous reports that birds in the undergrowth of tropical forests avoid rapid frequency modulation in their long-range vocalizations.

  3. 3.

    Maximum range of detection is probably not the primary selection pressure on many animal vocalizations, even for territorial advertisement, except perhaps in tropical forests. Instead, acoustic signals might incorporate features that degrade predictably with range to permit a receiver to estimate the signaler's distance. Future investigations might explore the propagation of animal vocalizations in relation to the usual spacing of animals in their habitat. Features that encode different kinds of information, such as individual and species identity, might propagate to different distances.

  4. 4.

    Measurements of the transmission of sound in natural environments have often not controlled several important parameters. First, the effects of gound attenuation and scattering are not linear with range; consequently measurements of excess attenuation over different ranges in the same environment might differ. Second, the directionality of speakers and microphones will affect measurements of attenuation and reverberations in scattering environments. Third, as stationary waves shift with frequency, any single microphone placement will lie in a null for some frequencies and in a maximum for others.


Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1978

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. Haven Wiley
    • 1
  • Douglas G. Richards
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of North CarolinaChapel HillUSA

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