[MARMAM] New paper: Vocal plasticity in harbour seal pups

Andrea andrea.ravignani at mpi.nl
Sun Nov 14 00:31:51 PST 2021

Dear colleagues,

Our paper on 'Vocal plasticity in harbour seal pups' has recently been published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

The paper is available on the journal webpage: https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0456 .

If the link above does not work and you would like to obtain a PDF, do not hesitate to contact me at: andrea.ravignani at mpi.nl .

Kind regards,

Vocal plasticity can occur in response to environmental and biological factors, including conspecifics' vocalizations and noise. Pinnipeds are one of the few mammalian groups capable of vocal learning, and are therefore relevant to understanding the evolution of vocal plasticity in humans and other animals. Here, we investigate the vocal plasticity of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina), a species with vocal learning abilities observed in adulthood but not puppyhood. To evaluate early mammalian vocal development, we tested 1–3 weeks-old seal pups. We tailored noise playbacks to this species and age to induce seal pups to shift their fundamental frequency (f0), rather than adapt call amplitude or temporal characteristics. We exposed individual pups to low- and high-intensity bandpass-filtered noise, which spanned—and masked—their typical range of f0; simultaneously, we recorded pups' spontaneous calls. Unlike most mammals, pups modified their vocalizations by lowering their f0 in response to increased noise. This modulation was precise and adapted to the particular experimental manipulation of the noise condition. In addition, higher levels of noise induced less dispersion around the mean f0, suggesting that pups may have actively focused their phonatory efforts to target lower frequencies. Noise did not seem to affect call amplitude. However, one seal showed two characteristics of the Lombard effect known for human speech in noise: significant increase in call amplitude and flattening of spectral tilt. Our relatively low noise levels may have favoured f0 modulation while inhibiting amplitude adjustments. This lowering of f0 is unusual, as most animals commonly display no such f0 shift. Our data represent a relatively rare case in mammalian neonates, and have implications for the evolution of vocal plasticity and vocal learning across species, including humans.

Andrea Ravignani
Group Leader, Comparative Bioacoustics, 
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

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