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A Chinese alligator in heliox: formant frequencies in a crocodilian
Stephan A. Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson and W. Tecumseh Fitch.
Abstract

Crocodilians are among the most vocal non-avian reptiles. Adults of both sexes produce loud vocalizations known as ellows year round, with the highest rate during the mating season. Although the specific function of these vocalizations remains unclear, they may advertise the caller's body size, because relative size differences strongly affect courtship and territorial behaviour in crocodilians. In mammals and birds, a common mechanism for producing honest acoustic signals of body size is via formant frequencies (vocal tract resonances). To our knowledge, formants have to date never been documented in any non-avian reptile, and formants do not seem to play a role in the vocalizations of anurans. We tested for formants in crocodilian vocalizations by using playbacks to induce a female Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) to bellow in an airtight chamber. During vocalizations, the animal inhaled either normal air or a helium/oxygen mixture (heliox) in which the velocity of sound is increased. Although heliox allows normal respiration, it alters the formant distribution of the sound spectrum. An acoustic analysis of the calls showed that the source signal components remained constant under both conditions, but an upward shift of high-energy frequency bands was observed in heliox. We conclude that these frequency bands represent formants. We suggest that crocodilian vocalizations could thus provide an acoustic indication of body size via formants. Because birds and crocodilians share a common ancestor with all dinosaurs, a better understanding of their vocal production systems may also provide insight into the communication of extinct Archosaurians.
Bibliographic information

Stephan A. Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson and W. Tecumseh Fitch. A Chinese alligator in heliox: formant frequencies in a crocodilian. J Exp Biol 2015 218:2442-2447. ; doi:10.1242/jeb.119552
2015/08/11 Primate Research Institute