3 years ago

Sounds of Modified Flight Feathers Reliably Signal Danger in a Pigeon

Sounds of Modified Flight Feathers Reliably Signal Danger in a Pigeon
Jochen Zeil, Trevor G. Murray, Robert D. Magrath

Summary

In his book on sexual selection, Darwin [1] devoted equal space to non-vocal and vocal communication in birds. Since then, vocal communication has become a model for studies of neurobiology, learning, communication, evolution, and conservation [2, 3]. In contrast, non-vocal "instrumental music," as Darwin called it, has only recently become subject to sustained inquiry [4, 5]. In particular, outstanding work reveals how feathers, often highly modified, produce distinctive sounds [6–9], and suggests that these sounds have evolved at least 70 times, in many orders [10]. It remains to be shown, however, that such sounds are signals used in communication. Here we show that crested pigeons (Ochyphaps lophotes) signal alarm with specially modified wing feathers. We used video and feather-removal experiments to demonstrate that the highly modified 8th primary wing feather (P8) produces a distinct note during each downstroke. The sound changes with wingbeat frequency, so that birds fleeing danger produce wing sounds with a higher tempo. Critically, a playback experiment revealed that only if P8 is present does the sound of escape flight signal danger. Our results therefore indicate, nearly 150 years after Darwin's book, that modified feathers can be used for non-vocal communication, and they reveal an intrinsically reliable alarm signal.

Publisher URL: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)31268-X

DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.09.068

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