Individual vocal recognition in zebra finches relies on song syllable structure rather than song syllable order [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Nicole Geberzahn and Sebastien Deregnaucourt

Many species are able to vocally recognize individual conspecifics and this capacity seems widespread in oscine songbirds. The exact acoustic features used for such recognition are often not clear. In the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), the song motif is composed of a few syllables repeated in a fixed sequential order and song bouts include several repetitions of the motif. Here, we used an operant discrimination task, the GO/NOGO procedure, to show that zebra finches are capable of individual vocal recognition even if the bird has to distinguish males that all produce an imitation of the same song model. Furthermore, we studied whether such individual vocal recognition was based on spectro-temporal details of song syllables, i.e. the local fine structure of the song, or on the sequential order in which song syllables are arranged in the song bout. To this end, we trained male and female zebra finches to discriminate songs of one male conspecific from those of four others. After learning this baseline discrimination, subjects were exposed to a novel set of stimuli originating from the same individuals, in order to test for their capability to generalise. Subjects correctly classified those novel stimuli, illustrating their ability for individual vocal recognition. Then they were exposed to hybrid stimuli combining the syllable sequences of one individual with the spectro-temporal features of another. Behavioural responses of subjects to hybrid stimuli suggest that they rely on spectro-temporal details of syllables and might pay less attention to syllable sequences for individual vocal recognition.

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