Complex vocal learning and three-dimensional mating environments

Abstract

Complex vocal learning, the capacity to imitate new sounds, underpins the evolution of animal vocal cultures and song dialects and is a key prerequisite for human speech and song. Due to its relevance for the understanding of cultural evolution and the biology and evolution of language and music, the trait has gained much scholarly attention. However, while we have seen tremendous progress with respect to our understanding of its morphological, neurological and genetic aspects, its peculiar phylogenetic distribution has remained elusive. Intriguingly, animals as distinct as hummingbirds and humpback whales share well-developed vocal learning capacity in common with humans, while this ability is quite limited in nonhuman primates. Yet, solving this ‘vocal learning conundrum’ may shed light on the constraints ancestral humans overcame to unleash their vocal capacities. To this end I consider major constraints and functions that have been proposed. I highlight an especially promising ecological constraint, namely the spatial dimensionality of the environment. Based on an informal comparative review, I suggest that complex vocal learning is associated with three-dimensional habitats such as air and water. I argue that this is consistent with recent theoretical advances—i.e., the coercion-avoidance and dimensionality hypotheses—and with the long-standing hypothesis that mate choice is a major driver of the evolution and origin of complex vocal learning. However, I stress that multiple functions may apply and that quantitative phylogenetic comparative methods should be employed to finally resolve the issue.

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Acknowledgements

I thank Sally Street, Krist Vaesen, Marcel Eens, and Gert Verpooten for discussion and comments on an initial version of the manuscript. I especially thank the associate editor and two anonymous reviewers for their in-depth comments on previous versions of the manuscript.

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Verpooten, J. Complex vocal learning and three-dimensional mating environments. Biol Philos 36, 12 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-021-09786-2

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Keywords

  • Complex vocal learning
  • Mate choice
  • Coercion avoidance
  • Dimensionality hypothesis
  • Cross-species comparison
  • Musical protolanguage