Multimodal alarm behavior in urban and rural gray squirrels studied by means of observation and a mechanical robot
Sarah R. Partan, Andrew G. FULMER, Maya A. M. GOUNARD, Jake E. REDMOND
H a m p s h i r e C o l l e g e S c h o o l o f C o g n i t i v e S c i e n c e , A m h e r s t , U S A
Urbanization of animal habitats has the potential to affect the natural communication systems of any species able to survive in the changed environment.Urban animals such as squirrels use multiple signal channels to communicate, but it is unknown how urbanization has affected these behaviors.Multimodal communication, involving more than one sensory modality, can be studied by use of biomimetic mechanical animal models that are designed to simulate the multimodal signals and be presented to animal subjects in the field.In this way the responses to the various signal components can be compared and contrasted to determine whether the multimodal signal is made up of redundant or nonredundant components.In this study we presented wild gray squirrels in relatively urban and relatively rural habitats in Western Massachusetts with a biomimetic squirrel model that produced tail flags and alarm barks in a variety of combinations.We found that the squirrels responded to each unimodal component on its own, the bark and tail flag, but they responded most to the complete multimodal signal, containing both the acoustic and the moving visual components, providing evidence that in this context the signal components are redundant and that their combination elicits multimodal enhancement.We expanded on the results of Partan et al. (2009) by providing data on signaling behavior in the presence and absence of conspecifics, suggesting that alarm signaling is more likely if conspecifics are present.We found that the squirrels were more active in the urban habitats and that they responded more to tail flagging in the urban habitats as compared to the rural ones, suggesting the interesting possibility of a multimodal shift from reliance on audio to visual signals in noisier more crowded urban habitats[Current Zoology 56(3): 313–326,2010].