Zurich Communication Cognition group

Principal Investigator: Prof. Marta Manser

martaWe are interested in the understanding of animal societies. We investigate proximate and functional aspects on group coordination (leadership and group decisions) and in particular, communication and cognition in mammals. With a comparative approach we identify what selective factors favor communicative complexity (e.g., vocal repertoire size, variation in call structure within call types, call combinations, etc…) and the underlying cognitive mechanisms. We focus on phylogenetic closely related or sympatric living species showing variation in their social structure. Based on behavioural observations of habituated animals in their natural habitat we test specific hypotheses with field experiments, and also on captive animals.

Research themes

  • Communication and cognition in small mammals
  • Hormones and vocal production and perception
  • Communicative complexity and social complexity
  • Animal communication and human language
  • Leadership and group decisions in meerkats and banded mongoose
  • Social dynamics and mitigation strategies in cooperative breeders
  • Spatial orientation in meerkats
  • Caching behaviour in ground squirrels
  • Social and genetic structure of slender mongoose
  • Conservation of hares in Switzerland
  • Effect of domestication on understanding perception and deception in dogs


More information about current projects can be found by clicking on the group members’ names below.

Zurich cognition group

inesWebsite: http://www.ieu.uzh.ch/en/staff/postdocs/goncalves.html

Contact: ines.goncalves@ieu.uzh.ch


Activational and maternal effects on meerkat vocal communication


In social species like meerkats, animals form complex relationships and social structures that require sustained communication between group members in order to be maintained. Animal vocalisations, like human voices, can provide a plethora of information regarding an individual’s sex, age, size, social rank, motivation and hormonal status. Hormones, such as cortisol and testosterone, are powerful chemicals that mediate many behaviours and social interactions, but the extent to which they affect vocal communication is still not very well understood. Vocal communication is crucial to meerkats as they use different calls to coordinate group movement, alert others to the presence of predators and conspecifics, and also to elicit and respond to social stimuli. Thus, the main aim of my research is to understand how cortisol, a stress hormone, and testosterone, a sex hormone, affect the vocal behaviour of meerkats across multiple contexts like foraging, social and agonistic interactions. Additionally, I am interested in understanding how maternal hormones may affect the vocal and behavioural development of their offspring and the implications these effects may have regarding their social rank, longevity and reproductive success.

ramonaContact: ramona.rauber@uzh.ch


Vocal Coordination in the Meerkat “Watchman’s Song”


Animals often face the trade-off between foraging and anti-predator vigilance. The sentinel system represents one way of minimizing this trade-off, by having one individual on raised guard, scanning the environment for the presence of predators, while the rest of the group is focusing on foraging. In species in which either the habitat or their foraging style does not allow individuals to visually check for the presence of a sentinel without having to interrupt foraging, sentinel typically give soft calls, called the “Watchman’s song”. However, in contrast to many other species with sentinel calls, meerkats have not only one, but six different sentinel call types. By collecting recordings and conducting playback experiments we aim at improving our understanding of vocal coordination in sentinel systems. This involves investigating ontogenetic aspects of when young start to produce the sentinel repertoire and whether individuals can establish some kind of reliability assessment depending on the sentinel’s age, experience as a guard or dominance status, based on which foraging group members adjust their own vigilance behaviour. Additionally, we are analysing the functionality of the high variation in sentinel call types, having found evidence that it provides the rest of the group with information about subtle changes in perceived predation risk.

gabriellaWebsite: http://www.ieu.uzh.ch/en/staff/phd/gall-gabriella.html

Contact: gabriella.gall@yahoo.de


Group coordination during foraging in meerkats (Suricata suricatta)


Animals living in cohesive groups need to coordinate their activities, for example when making decisions about their foraging destination or timing of travel. Thereby individual group members need to compromise to overcome potential conflicts of interest. This decision making process can be facilitated by the use of vocal communication, with different signals potentially being used in different contexts. Meerkats are group-living mammals foraging as a cohesive group and use vocal signals to maintain spatial cohesion. As they live in stable social groups, with a high reproductive skew, we expect differences in leadership and signalling, i.e. between dominants and subordinates. Furthermore, the spatial pattern of the group as well as the association pattern between group members will have a strong influence on the decision making process. Therefore, in this study we investigate how meerkats use different vocalisations to coordinate group movement during foraging, focusing also on the spatial organization of the group.

meganUniversity of Zurich, Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies

Contact: megan.wyman@ieu.uzh.ch


Vocal communication in meerkats: individual variation and dominance effects

Communication is critical to social organization, reproduction, and social interactions in group living cooperative species. Individual variation within signals may be affected by a variety of sources which influence the information content of the signal. My research interests involve examining these sources of variation within vocalizations of free-living meerkats (Suricata suricatta). We will explore the social, environmental, maternal, and genetic influences on individual variation in acoustic signals using repeated audio recordings of individuals. One specific area of interest involves studying the effects of dominance on vocalizations.

In many species, information on dominance is contained in signals that are often held reliable by costs, constraints, or risks. Producing or attending to this information can be adaptive if it results in increased fitness benefits, e.g., reduced social conflict or physical harm, or increased reproductive fitness or foraging efficiency. In such cases, we would expect animals that transition from subordinate to dominant roles to show changes in signal parameters that communicate social status. This is especially true if these signals are constrained by anatomy or physiology that changes during these dominance transitions. This project will examine the mechanisms and functionality of vocal signature changes associated with attaining social dominance in meerkats. Specifically, I will examine potential changes in vocal production anatomy and acoustic parameters through repeated x-ray imaging and audio recordings. Playback studies will be used to test responses to dominance information within calls.

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