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Biomechanical control of vocal plasticity in an echolocating bat

J Exp Biol 219: 878-86. doi: 10.1242/jeb.134957. Epub 2016 Jan 28. PMID:26823102

Authors/Editors: Luo J
Wiegrebe L
Publication Date: 2016
Type of Publication: Journal Articles 2001 - 2017

Abstract

Many animal species adjust the spectral composition of their acoustic signals to variable environments. However, the physiological foundation of such spectral plasticity is often unclear. The source-filter theory of sound production, initially established for human speech, applies to vocalizations in birds and mammals. According to this theory, adjusting the spectral structure of vocalizations could be achieved by modifying either the laryngeal/syringeal source signal or the vocal tract which filters the source signal. Here we show that in Pale spear-nosed bats, spectral plasticity induced by moderate level background noise is dominated by the vocal tract rather than the laryngeal source signal. Specifically, we found that with increasing background noise levels, bats consistently decreased the spectral centroid of their echolocation calls up to 3.2 kHz, together with other spectral parameters. In contrast, noise-induced changes in fundamental frequency were small (maximally 0.1 kHz) and were inconsistent across individuals. Changes in spectral centroid did not correlate with changes in fundamental frequency, whereas correlated negatively with changes in call amplitude. Furthermore, while the bats consistently increased the call amplitude with increasing noise levels (the Lombard effect), increases in call amplitude typically did not lead to increases in fundamental frequency. In summary, our results suggest that at least to a certain degree echolocating bats are capable of adjusting call amplitude, fundament frequency, and spectral parameters independently.