Biology Letters
Restricted accessAnimal behaviour

Cooperative bird differentiates between the calls of different individuals, even when vocalizations were from completely unfamiliar individuals

Paul G. McDonald

Paul G. McDonald

Behavioural and Physiological Ecology Research Centre, Zoology, University of New England, Armidale 2351, Australia

School of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney 2109, Australia

[email protected]

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    Hypotheses proposed to explain the evolution of cooperative behaviour typically require differentiation between either groups of conspecifics (e.g. kin/non-kin) or, more typically, individuals (e.g. reciprocal altruism). Despite this, the mechanisms that facilitate individual or class recognition have rarely been explored in cooperative species. This study examines the individual differentiation abilities of noisy miners (Manorina melanocephala), a species with one of the most complex avian societies known. Miners permanently occupy colonies numbering into hundreds of individuals. Within these colonies, cooperative coalitions form on a fission–fusion basis across numerous contexts, from social foraging through to mobbing predators. Birds often use individually distinctive ‘chur’ calls to recruit others to a caller's location, facilitating coalition formation. I used the habituation–discrimination paradigm to test the ability of miners to differentiate between the chur calls of two individuals that were both either: (i) familiar, or (ii) unfamiliar to the focal subject. This technique had not, to my knowledge, been used to assess vocalization differentiation in cooperative birds previously, but here demonstrated that miners could correctly use the spectral features of signals to differentiate between the vocalizations of different individuals, regardless of their familiarity. By attending to individual differences in recruitment calls, miners have a communication system that is capable of accommodating even the most complex cooperative hypotheses based upon acoustic information.