Ontogenetic variation of heritability and maternal effects in yellow-bellied marmot alarm calls

Daniel T Blumstein, Kathy T Nguyen, Julien G A Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Individuals of many species produce distinctive vocalizations that may relay potential information about the signaller. The alarm calls of some species have been reported to be individually specific, and this distinctiveness may allow individuals to access the reliability or kinship of callers. While not much is known generally about the heritability of mammalian vocalizations, if alarm calls were individually distinctive to permit kinship assessment, then call structure should be heritable. Here, we show conclusively for the first time that alarm call structure is heritable. We studied yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) and made nine quantitative measurements of their alarm calls. With a known genealogy, we used the animal model (a statistical technique) to estimate alarm call heritability. In juveniles, only one of the measured variables had heritability significantly different from zero; however, most variables had significant maternal environmental effects. By contrast, yearlings and adults had no significant maternal environmental effects, but the heritability of nearly all measured variables was significantly different from zero. Some, but not all of these heritable effects were significantly different across age classes. The presence of significantly non-zero maternal environmental effects in juveniles could reflect the impact of maternal environmental stresses on call structure. Regardless of this mechanism, maternal environmental effects could permit kinship recognition in juveniles. In older animals, the substantial genetic basis of alarm call structure suggests that calls could be used to assess kinship and, paradoxically, might also suggest a role of learning in call structure.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20130176
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London. B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1758
Early online date6 Mar 2013
Publication statusPublished - 7 May 2013


  • heritability
  • mammalian vocalizations
  • alarm calls
  • yellow-bellied marmots


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