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Biol Lett. 2010 October 23; 6(5): 623–625.
Published online 2010 March 17. doi:  10.1098/rsbl.2010.0118
PMCID: PMC2936140

Alarm calls elicit predator-specific physiological responses


Glucocorticoids regulate glucose concentrations and responses to unpredictable events, while also modulating cognition. Juvenile Belding's ground squirrels (Urocitellus beldingi) learn to respond to whistle and trill alarm calls, warning of aerial and terrestrial predators, respectively, shortly after emerging from natal burrows at one month of age. Alarm calls can cause physiological reactions and arousal, and this arousal, coupled with watching adult responses, might help juveniles learn associations between calls and behavioural responses. I studied whether young show differential cortisol responses to alarm and non-alarm calls, using playbacks of U. beldingi whistles, trills, squeals (a conspecific control vocalization) and silent controls. Trills elicited very high cortisol responses, and, using an individual's response to the silent control as baseline, only their response to a trill was significantly higher than baseline. This cortisol increase would provide glucose for extended vigilance and escape efforts, which is appropriate for evading terrestrial predators which hunt for long periods. Although whistles do not elicit a cortisol response, previous research has shown that they do result in bradycardia, which enhances attention and information processing. This is a novel demonstration of two physiological responses to two alarm calls, each appropriate to the threats represented by the calls.

Keywords: cortisol, learning, alarm calls, development, ground squirrel, Urocitellus beldingi

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