The function of nonlinear phenomena in meerkat alarm calls

Simon W. Townsend, Marta B. Manser


Nonlinear vocal phenomena are a ubiquitous feature of human and non-human animal vocalizations. Although we understand how these complex acoustic intrusions are generated, it is not clear whether they function adaptively for the animals producing them. One explanation is that nonlinearities make calls more unpredictable, increasing behavioural responses and ultimately reducing the chances of habituation to these call types. Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) exhibit nonlinear subharmonics in their predator alarm calls. We specifically tested the ‘unpredictability hypothesis’ by playing back naturally occurring nonlinear and linear medium-urgency alarm call bouts. Results indicate that subjects responded more strongly and foraged less after hearing nonlinear alarm calls. We argue that these findings support the unpredictability hypothesis and suggest this is the first study in animals or humans to show that nonlinear vocal phenomena function adaptively.


    • Received June 11, 2010.
    • Accepted June 29, 2010.
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