Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 193, Issue 4, pp 477–483 | Cite as

Tracking silence: adjusting vocal production to avoid acoustic interference

  • S. E. Roian EgnorEmail author
  • Jeanette Graham Wickelgren
  • Marc D. Hauser
Original Paper


Organisms that use vocal signals to communicate often modulate their vocalizations to avoid being masked by other sounds in the environment. Although some environmental noise is continuous, both biotic and abiotic noise can be intermittent, or even periodic. Interference from intermittent noise can be avoided if calls are timed to coincide with periods of silence, a capacity that is unambiguously present in insects, amphibians, birds, and humans. Surprisingly, we know virtually nothing about this fundamental capacity in nonhuman primates. Here we show that a New World monkey, the cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus), can restrict calls to periodic silent intervals in loud white noise. In addition, calls produced during these silent intervals were significantly louder than calls recorded in silent baseline sessions. Finally, average call duration dropped across sessions, indicating that experience with temporally patterned noise caused tamarins to compress their calls. Taken together, these results show that in the presence of a predictable, intermittent environmental noise, cotton-top tamarins are able to modify the duration, timing, and amplitude of their calls to avoid acoustic interference.


Vocal control Auditory masking Acoustic communication Call timing 





Sound pressure level


Combination long call



We thank past and present members of the Cognitive Evolution Lab, particularly Emily Baker, Jasmine Dowell and Jenny Taylor for data collection, Jeff Stevens for assistance with statistical analysis and Anthony W. Leonardo, Teresa F. Leonardo and Caitlin Sparks for comments on the manuscript. Funds for the research were provided by an NRSA award to SERE and an NIH grant to MDH. The experiments comply with the “Principles of animal care”, publication No. 86-23, revised 1985 of the National Institute of Health and also with the current laws of the United States.


  1. Bailey WJ, Morris GK (1986) Confusion of phonotaxis by masking sounds in the bushcricket Conocephalus brevipennis (Tettigoniidae: Conocephalinae). Ethology 73:19–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Brumm H, Todt D (2002) Noise-dependent song amplitude regulation in a territorial songbird. Anim Behav 63:891–897CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cade WH, Otte D (1982) Alternation calling and spacing patterns in the field cricket Acanthogryllus fortipes (Orthopterea; Gryllidae). Can J Zool 60:2916–2920CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cody ML, Brown JH (1969) Song asynchrony in neighboring bird species. Nature 222:778–780CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cynx J, Lewis R, Tavel B, Tse H (1998) Amplitude regulation of vocalizations in noise by a songbird, Taeniopygia guttata. Anim Behav 56:107–113PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Egnor SER, Hauser MD (2006) Noise-induced vocal modulation in cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus). Am J Primatol 68:1183–1190PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Egnor SER, Iguina CG, Hauser MD (2006) Perturbation of auditory feedback causes systematic perturbation in vocal structure in adult cotton-top tamarins. J Exp Biol 209:3652–3663PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ficken RW, Ficken MS, Hailman JP (1974) Temporal pattern shifts to avoid acoustic interference in singing birds. Science 183:762–763CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Ghazanfar AA, Flombaum JI, Miller CT, Hauser MD (2001) The units of perception in cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) long calls. J Comp Physiol 187:27–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gochfeld M (1978) Intraspecific social stimulation and temporal displacement of songs of the lesser skylark Alauda gulgula. Z Tierpsych 48:337–344Google Scholar
  11. Grafe TU (1996) The function of call alternation in the African reed frog (Hyperolius marmoratus): precise call timing prevents auditory masking. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 38:149–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hall M, Illes A, Vehrencamp SL (2005) Overlapping signals in banded wrens: long-term effects of prior experience on males and females. Behav Ecol 17:260–269CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lamprecht J (1970) Duettgesang beim Siamang, Symphalangus syndactlus (Hominoidea, Hylobatinae). Z Tierpsychol 27:186–204Google Scholar
  14. Littlejohn MJ, Martin AA (1969) Acoustic interaction between two species of leptodactylid frogs. Anim Behav 17:785–791CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lohr B, Wright TF, Dooling RJ (2003) Detection and discrimination of natural calls in masking noise by birds: estimating the active space of a signal. Anim Behav 65:763–777CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lombard E (1911) Le signe de l’elevation de la voix. Ann Mal Oreille Larynx 37:101–119Google Scholar
  17. Marler P, Tenaza R (1977) Communication in apes with special reference to vocalizations. In: Sebeok TA (ed) How animals communicate. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp 965–1033Google Scholar
  18. Marten K, Marler P (1977) Sound transmission and its significance for animal vocalization. I. Temperate habitats. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 2:271–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Masters WM, Raver KA (1996) The degradation of distance discrimination in big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) caused by different interference signals. J Comp Physiol A 179:703–713PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Mennill DJ, Ratcliffe LM (2004) Overlapping and matching in the song contests of black-capped chickadees. Anim Behav 67:441–450CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Mennill DJ, Ratcliffe LM, Boag PT (2002) Female eavesdropping on male song contests in songbirds. Science 296:873PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Miller CT, Flusberg S, Hauser MD (2003) Interruptibility of long call production in tamarins: implications for vocal control. J Exp Biol 206:2629–2639PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Naguib M (1999) Effects of song overlapping and alternating on nocturnally singing nightingales. Anim Behav 58:1061–1067PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Pola YV, Snowdon CT (1975) The vocalizations of pygmy marmosets, Cebuella pygmaea. Anim Behav 26:192–206Google Scholar
  25. Popp JW (1989) Temporal aspects of singing interactions among territorial ovenbirds (Seiurus aurocapillus). Ethology 82:127–133Google Scholar
  26. Potash LM (1972) Noise-induced changes in calls of the Japanese quail. Psychon Sci 26:252–254Google Scholar
  27. Scheifele PM, Andrew S, Cooper RA, Darre M, Musiek FE, Max L (2005) Indication of a Lombard vocal response in the St. Lawrence river beluga. JASA 117:1486–1492Google Scholar
  28. Sekulic R (1982) The function of howling in red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus). Behaviour 81:38–54Google Scholar
  29. Smith HJ, Newman JD, Symmes D (1982) Vocal concomitants of affiliative behavior in squirrel monkeys. In: Snowdon CT, Brown CH, Petersen MR (eds) Primate communication. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 30–49Google Scholar
  30. Tuttle MD, Ryan MJ (1982) The role of synchronized calling, ambient light, and ambient noise in anti-bat-predator behavior of a treefrog. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 11:125–131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Wasserman FE (1977) Intraspecific acoustical interference in the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). Anim Behav 25:949–952CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Wells KD (1977) The social behaviour of anuran amphibians. Anim Behav 25:666–693CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Wells KD, Schwartz JJ (1984) Vocal communication in a neotropical treefrog, Hyla ebracata: advertisement calls. Anim Behav 32:405–420CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Wollerman L (1999) Acoustic interference limits call detection in a neotropical frog Hyla ebraccata. Anim Behav 57:529–536PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Zelick RD, Narins PM (1983) Intensity discrimination and the precision of call timing in two species of neotropical treefrogs. J Comp Physiol A 153:403–412CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • S. E. Roian Egnor
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jeanette Graham Wickelgren
    • 1
  • Marc D. Hauser
    • 1
  1. 1.Harvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

Personalised recommendations