Perception of Male Caller Identity in Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus): Acoustic Analysis and Playback Experiments
Benjamin D. Charlton1*, William A. H. Ellis2, Allan J. McKinnon3, Jacqui Brumm4, Karen Nilsson4, W. Tecumseh Fitch1
1 Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
2 Koala Ecology Group, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
3 Department of Environment and Resource Management, Moggill Koala Hospital, Bellbowrie, Queensland, Australia
4 Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
The ability to signal individual identity using vocal signals and distinguish between conspecifics based on vocal cues is important in several mammal species. Furthermore, it can be important for receivers to differentiate between callers in reproductive contexts. In this study, we used acoustic analyses to determine whether male koala bellows are individually distinctive and to investigate the relative importance of different acoustic features for coding individuality. We then used a habituation-discrimination paradigm to investigate whether koalas discriminate between the bellow vocalisations of different male callers. Our results show that male koala bellows are highly individualized, and indicate that cues related to vocal tract filtering contribute the most to vocal identity. In addition, we found that male and female koalas habituated to the bellows of a specific male showed a significant dishabituation when they were presented with bellows from a novel male. The significant reduction in behavioural response to a final rehabituation playback shows this was not a chance rebound in response levels. Our findings indicate that male koala bellows are highly individually distinctive and that the identity of male callers is functionally relevant to male and female koalas during the breeding season. We go on to discuss the biological relevance of signalling identity in this species’ sexual communication and the potential practical implications of our findings for acoustic monitoring of male population levels.