Differences in acoustic directionality among vocalizations of the male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius pheoniceus) are related to function in communication

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Studies of animal acoustic communication have found that the frequency and temporal structure of acoustic signals can be shaped by selection for efficient communication. The directionality of acoustic radiation may also be adapted for communication, but we know relatively little about how directionality varies with signal function, sender morphology, and the environment in which the sound is transmitted. We tested the hypothesis that the directionality of a vocalization is adapted to its function in communication. This hypothesis predicts that vocalizations that are directed to multiple conspecifics (e.g., advertisements and alarms) will be relatively omnidirectional because this will maximize the number of neighbors and mates that receive the signal, and that vocalizations directed to particular individuals will be relatively directional because this will maximize detection of the signal by the targeted receiver and minimize eavesdropping. To test these predictions, we measured the directionality and amplitude of red-winged blackbird (Agelaius pheoniceus) vocalizations in the field by recording vocalizations simultaneously on eight calibrated microphones encircling the bird. We found significant variation in directionality among vocalizations. Supporting our predictions, we found that the most omnidirectional vocalizations were those used to alert conspecifics to danger, and the most directional vocalizations are those used during courtship and solicitation of copulation, when the costs of eavesdropping are likely to be high. These results suggest that the directionality of red-winged blackbird vocalizations is shaped by selection for effective communication. This study is the first to provide statistical support for the hypothesis that directionality is related to the function of a signal in communication.

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