Heart rate changes reveal that little blue penguin chicks (Eudyptula minor) can use vocal signatures to discriminate familiar from unfamiliar chicks
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Researchers investigating social recognition typically measure only behavioural responses during discrimination tests – physiological changes have been largely ignored. We examined whether little blue penguin chicks (Eudyptula minor) could distinguish siblings from other chicks using auditory cues, by measuring behavioural and heart rate changes during playback experiments. Chicks were exposed to five treatments: the begging calls of siblings, neighbouring chicks and unfamiliar chicks, and two controls (heterospecific begging calls and music). We also determined if chicks developed distinctive begging calls, by using F-ratios to quantify inter- versus intra-individual variability in a range of acoustic parameters, and applying a discriminant-function analysis. Inter-individual variation was greater for pitch than for temporal or amplitude parameters, suggesting that call pitch may be important for individual recognition. The discriminant-function analysis showed each chick's calls were distinctive and could act as a vocal signature. Treatments did not instigate different behavioural responses. However, chick heart rates during playback of sibling calls were significantly higher than those recorded during stranger, but not neighbour, playback. A simple recognition system based on familiarity may allow this plesiomorphic and loosely colonial penguin to gain at least some of the benefits associated with more advanced sibling recognition systems (some highly colonial seabirds discriminate siblings from neighbouring chicks). Heart rate could be a useful measure of social recognition abilities, particularly in species where changes in behaviour are not always evident or are difficult to observe.
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