Parent–environmental interactions shape acoustic signatures in tree swallows: a cross-fostering experiment

Hendrik Reers, Marty L. Leonard, Andrew G. Horn, Alain Jacot

Published online: 
22 January 2014

Acoustic signatures are common components of avian vocalizations and are important for the recognition of individuals and groups. The proximate mechanisms by which these signatures develop are poorly understood, however. The development of acoustic signatures in nestling birds is of particular interest, because high rates of extra-pair paternity or egg dumping can cause nestlings to be unrelated to at least one of the adults that are caring for them. In such cases, nestlings might conceal their genetic origins, by developing acoustic signatures through environmental rather than genetic mechanisms. In a cross-fostering experiment with tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor, we investigated whether brood signatures of nestlings that were about to fledge were attributable to their genetic/maternal origins or to their rearing environment. We found that the calls of cross-fostered nestlings did not vary based on their genetic/maternal origin, but did show some variation based on their rearing environment. Control nestlings that were not swapped, however, showed stronger brood signatures than either experimental group, suggesting that acoustic signatures develop through an interaction between rearing environment and genetic/maternal effects.