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Free-Ranging Male Koalas Use Size-Related Variation in Formant Frequencies to Assess Rival Males

Benjamin D. Charlton1*, Desley A. Whisson2, David Reby1

1 School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom
2 Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia

ABSTRACT

Although the use of formant frequencies in nonhuman animal vocal communication systems has received considerable recent interest, only a few studies have examined the importance of these acoustic cues to body size during intra-sexual competition between males. Here we used playback experiments to present free-ranging male koalas with re-synthesised bellow vocalisations in which the formants were shifted to simulate either a large or a small adult male. We found that male looking responses did not differ according to the size variant condition played back. In contrast, male koalas produced longer bellows and spent more time bellowing when they were presented with playbacks simulating larger rivals. In addition, males were significantly slower to respond to this class of playback stimuli than they were to bellows simulating small males. Our results indicate that male koalas invest more effort into their vocal responses when they are presented with bellows that have lower formants indicative of larger rivals, but also show that males are slower to engage in vocal exchanges with larger males that represent more dangerous rivals. By demonstrating that male koalas use formants to assess rivals during the breeding season we have provided evidence that male-male competition constitutes an important selection pressure for broadcasting and attending to size-related formant information in this species. Further empirical studies should investigate the extent to which the use of formants during intra-sexual competition is widespread throughout mammals.