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Title: Alarm calls and information use in the New Holland honeyeater
Author: McLachlan, Jessica Ruth
ISNI:       0000 0004 7653 3663
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2019
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Predation is a major source of mortality, resulting in strong selection on strategies to avoid being captured. Individuals have access to multiple sources of information on predation risk: they can detect danger directly themselves, and they can attend to behavioural cues or warning signals produced by others. Rapid responses are vital when hunted by aerial predators in particular, as split-second decisions can mean the difference between life and death. I studied New Holland honeyeaters, Phylidonyris novaehollandiae, as a model system to examine how alarm calls encode information about danger and to understand how this information is used by receivers. In Chapter 2, observational data showed that these honeyeaters produce multi-element, aerial alarm calls in response to flying threats. Male honeyeaters had more opportunities to detect threats than did females and showed a greater propensity to alarm call when presented with gliding model predators. In Chapter 3, a combination of observational data and model presentations demonstrated that aerial alarm calls encode urgency in both the number of elements, with more dangerous threats receiving more elements, and the acoustic structure of the first element. Playback presentations of alarm calls and video recordings to measure responses revealed that honeyeaters made extremely fast decisions about fleeing to cover based on the acoustic structure of the first alarm element, while the number of elements determined for how long they hid. These two chapters demonstrate that receivers have rapid access to detailed information about the type and degree of danger from conspecific alarm calls. In Chapter 4, I investigated how birds integrate personal information about danger with social information from alarm calls. Perched birds were faster to detect model predators than feeding birds, suggesting that they have greater access to personal information. Consistent with this, perched birds were less likely to flee to cover in response to alarm playbacks than foraging birds. Birds also fled less in response to less urgent social information, such as playbacks of more distant alarm calls, and less relevant social information, in the form of calls from another species with overlapping but not identical threats. In Chapter 5, I tested how honeyeaters value social information about danger derived from single versus multiple sources, both within and across species. Birds paid attention to the number of independent signallers when assessing information from both conspecifics and heterospecifics, responding more strongly to playbacks of alarm calls from two sources than a single source, but they also moderated their responses according to signal relevance. Together, these results show that birds make flexible decisions about danger by integrating information from multiple sources and assessing its quality, allowing them to mitigate the costs of fleeing to false, or irrelevant, alarms while taking advantage of the multitude of information provided by the prey community's neighbourhood watch.
Supervisor: Davies, Nicholas ; Magrath, Robert Sponsor: NERC
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: alarm call ; information use ; acoustic communication ; anti-predator ; social information