Dwarf mongoose alarm calls: investigating a complex non-human animal call

Katie Collier*, Andrew N Radford, Sabine Stoll, Stuart Watson, Marta Manser, Balthasar Bickel, Simon Townsend

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
73 Downloads (Pure)


Communication plays a vital role in the social lives of many species and varies greatly in complexity. One possible way to increase communicative complexity is by combining signals into longer sequences, which has been proposed as a mechanism allowing species with a limited repertoire to increase their communicative output. In mammals, most studies on combinatoriality have focused on vocal communication in non-human primates. Here, we investigated a potential combination of alarm calls in the dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula), a non-primate mammal. Acoustic analyses and playback experiments with a wild population suggest: (i) that dwarf mongooses produce a complex call type (T3) which, at least at the surface level, seems to comprise units that are not functionally different to two meaningful alarm calls (aerial and terrestrial); and (ii) that this T3 call functions as a general alarm, produced in response to a wide range of threats. Using a novel approach, we further explored multiple interpretations of the T3 call based on the information content of the apparent comprising calls and how they are combined. We also considered an alternative, noncombinatorial interpretation that frames T3 as the origin, rather than the product, of the individual alarm calls. This study complements previous knowledge of vocal combinatoriality in non-primate mammals and introduces an approach that could facilitate comparisons between different animal and human communication systems.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20192514
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1935
Early online date23 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2020


  • Alarm call
  • Combinatoriality
  • Dwarf mongoose
  • Syntax
  • Vocal communication
  • Vocal complexity


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