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A Phonological Analysis of Male Gibbon Singing Behavior

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Acoustic analyses and experimental field playbacks were conducted to investigate the nature and communicative significance of the phonological structure and organization of male gibbon (Hylobates agilis) songs. Males use a limited number of spectrographically discrete elements or note types to construct songs. A classification of these note types was produced initially through a visual sorting process using gross spectral and temporal features. Measurement of single acoustic variables and a digital sound program, which compared the two-dimensional cross-correlation values of note spectrograms, were employed to check the results of the qualitative sorting procedure. The sequential organization of notes composing songs was examined by tabulating the frequencies of occurrence of each note type in different positions and the transition probabilities between note types. These analyses revealed that songs are formed within a framework of rules, which define regular patterns in the placement and order of note types. To investigate whether the gibbons employ these rules in a biologically meaningful fashion, a field playback experiment was conducted comparing the responses of animals to normal and phonologically rearranged songs. Although the gibbons identify rearranged songs as conspecific territorial signals, responses to playbacks suggested that the hypothesized rules generating songs are communicatively significant; male gibbons responded in a qualitatively different fashion to normal and phonologically rearranged songs. These results are evaluated in light of other studies of animal vocal communication.

Affiliations: 1: The Rockefeller University, Field Research Center, Millbrook, New York 12545, U.S.A.

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