Why do shrews twitter? Communication or simple echo-based orientation

Björn M. Siemers, Grit Schauermann, Hendrik Turni, Sophie von Merten


Shrews are very vocal animals. We tested behaviourally whether the high-pitched laryngeal ‘twittering’ calls of as-yet unclear function serve for communication or echo-based orientation. We used a representative species from each of the two largest phylogenetic groups of shrews. In both species, experimental manipulation of substrate density, but not of the likelihood of conspecific presence, affected the shrews' call rate when exploring an unknown environment. This adaptation of call rate to the degree of habitat clutter parallels bat echolocation and suggests that shrews may use the echoes and reverberations of their calls for identifying routes through their habitat or for probing habitat type. To assess the acoustic feasibility of shrew echo orientation, we ensonified shrew habitats in the field with an ‘artificial shrew’ (small speaker mounted close to a sensitive microphone). The data showed that shrew-like calls can indeed yield echo scenes useful for habitat assessment at close range, but beyond the range of the shrews' vibrissae.


    • Received May 18, 2009.
    • Accepted May 27, 2009.
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