CIE Spotlight: Subharmonics increase the auditory impact of female koala rejection calls

Authors: Charlton, Benjamin D.; Watchorn, Darcy J.; Whisson, Desley A.

Source: ETHOLOGY, 128 (8):571-579, AUG 2017

Brief summary of the paper: Although non-linear phenomena are common in human and non-human animal vocalisations, their functional relevance remains poorly understood.

One theory posits that non-linear phenomena generate unpredictability in vocalisations, which increases the auditory impact of vocal signals, and makes animals less likely to habituate to call repetition. Female koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) produce vocal signals when they reject male copulation attempts that contain relatively high levels of non-linear phenomena, and thus may function as attention grabbing vocal signals during the breeding season.

To test this hypothesis, we used playback experiments: firstly, to determine whether female rejection calls induce heightened behavioural responses in free-ranging male koalas during the breeding season, and secondly, to examine how the relative amount of non-linear phenomena in rejection calls influences male behavioural response.

The results show that male koalas look for longer towards speakers broadcasting playback sequences of male bellows followed by a series of female rejection calls than those broadcasting only male bellows. In addition, female rejection call sequences with more subharmonics, higher harmonics-to-noise ratios, and less biphonation produced the greatest male looking responses.

Our findings support the hypothesis that female koala rejection calls function to grab male attention during the breeding season, and indicate that subharmonics are the main acoustic feature that increases the auditory impact of these vocal signals.