Signalling adjustments to direct and indirect environmental effects on signal perception in meerkats

Pauline Toni, Gabriella E.C. Gall*, Tim H. Clutton-Brock, Marta B. Manser

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The efficiency of communication between animals is determined by the perception range of signals. With changes in the environment, signal transmission between a sender and a receiver can be influenced both directly, where the signal’s propagation quality itself is affected, and indirectly where the senders or receivers’ behaviour is impaired, impacting for example the distance between them. Here we investigated how meerkats (Suricata suricatta) in the Kalahari Desert adjust to these challenges in the context of maintaining group cohesion through contact calls. We found that meerkats changed their calling rate when signal transmission was affected indirectly due to increased dispersion of group members as during a drought, but not under typical wet conditions, when signal transmission was directly affected due to higher vegetation density. Instead under these wetter conditions, meerkats remained within proximity to each other. Overall, both direct and indirect environmental effects on signal perception resulted in an increased probability of groups splitting. In conclusion, we provide evidence that social animals can flexibly adjust their vocal coordination behaviour to cope with direct and indirect effects of the environment on signal perception, but these adjustments have limitations.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0238313
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8 August
StatePublished - Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes


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