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Neural correlates of threat perception: neural equivalence of conspecific and heterospecific mobbing calls is learned

Faculty Advisor




threat, songbirds, predators, mobbing behavior

Abstract (summary)

Songbird auditory areas (i.e., CMM and NCM) are preferentially activated to playback of conspecific vocalizations relative to heterospecific and arbitrary noise [1-2]. Here, we asked if the neural response to auditory stimulation is not simply preferential for conspecific vocalizations but also for the information conveyed by the vocalization. Black-capped chickadees use their chick-a-dee mobbing call to recruit conspecifics and other avian species to mob perched predators [3]. Mobbing calls produced in response to smaller, higher-threat predators contain more ''D'' notes compared to those produced in response to larger, lower-threat predators and thus convey the degree of threat of predators [4]. We specifically asked whether the neural response varies with the degree of threat conveyed by the mobbing calls of chickadees and whether the neural response is the same for actual predator calls that correspond to the degree of threat of the chickadee mobbing calls. Our results demonstrate that, as degree of threat increases in conspecific chickadee mobbing calls, there is a corresponding increase in immediate early gene (IEG) expression in telencephalic auditory areas. We also demonstrate that as the degree of threat increases for the heterospecific predator, there is a corresponding increase in IEG expression in the auditory areas. Furthermore, there was no significant difference in the amount IEG expression between conspecific mobbing calls or heterospecific predator calls that were the same degree of threat. In a second experiment, using hand-reared chickadees without predator experience, we found more IEG expression in response to mobbing calls than corresponding predator calls, indicating that degree of threat is learned. Our results demonstrate that degree of threat corresponds to neural activity in the auditory areas and that threat can be conveyed by different species signals and that these signals must be learned.

Publication Information

Avey, M.T., Hoeschele, M., Moscicki, M.K., Bloomfield, L.L. & Sturdy, C.B. (2011). Neural correlates of threat perception: Neural equivalence of conspecific and heterospecific mobbing calls is learned. PLoS One, 6(8), e23844. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023844


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Attribution (CC BY)