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Vocal communication regulates sibling competition over food stock

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Abstract

Animals resolve conflicts over the share of resources by competing physically or signalling motivation with honest signals of need. In some species, young siblings vocally signal to each other their hunger level and the most vocal individual deters its siblings from competing for the non-divisible food item delivered at the next parental visit. This so-called sibling negotiation for forthcoming food has been studied only in this context. It therefore remains unclear whether siblings could also negotiate access to a pool of divisible resources, a situation that is similar to a group of individuals competing for an accessible food resource. To tackle this issue, we placed barn owl (Tyto alba) nestlings singly in artificial nests containing several mice, and we simulated the presence of a sibling calling at low or high rate using playback experiments. If nestling barn owls vocally negotiate over a divisible food stock, we propose the following two predictions. First, nestlings would vocally signal before eating from this stock of food, and second, numerous playback vocalizations would inhibit feeding. Accordingly, singleton nestlings vocalized just before consuming food stored in their artificial nest and they delayed the consumption of the food stock if hearing many playback calls. The production of such food-associated vocalizations has been observed in foraging adults in various birds and mammals, but never in young animals and when resource is divisible and easily accessible. Our study raises the possibility that vocal communication could evolve in a variety of competitive contexts.

Significance statement

We present here the first experimental evidence that sibling barn owls use food-associated vocalizations to compete over the preys stored in the nest. Owlets emit calls just before consuming an available food item and broadcasting calls induces nestlings to temporarily refrain from eating from the food stock. This raises the possibility that vocal communication can mediate the share of a food stock accessible to all competitors.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Paul Béziers, Pauline Ducouret, Estelle Ifrid and Baudouin des Monstiers for field assistance and Marty Leonard and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments.

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Correspondence to Amélie N. Dreiss.

Ethics declarations

The experiment was carried out under the legal authorization of the Veterinary Service of Vaud canton (N°2109.1). It has been shown that reducing temporarily brood size does not decrease parental feeding rates (Roulin et al. 1999) and none of the experimental broods were abandoned. Keeping owlets at the laboratory does not negatively affect their body condition, since mean body mass and survival at fledging do not differ between experimental nestlings and those remaining in their natural nest (Dreiss et al. 2013b). Nestlings were fed with dead laboratory mice obtained from an animal house (Reptiles Farm, Servion, Switzerland).

This study was funded by Swiss National Science Foundation for funding (31003A-120517).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Authors’ contributions

AD performed the playback experiment and FG analysed the vocalizations, LM and ML analysed the dyadic interactions. AND designed the experiments and supervised the project, AND and AR wrote the manuscript.

Additional information

Communicated by M. Leonard

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Dreiss, A.N., Gaime, F., Delarbre, A. et al. Vocal communication regulates sibling competition over food stock. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70, 927–937 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-016-2114-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-016-2114-2

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