Parent-embryo acoustic communication : a specialised heat vocalisation allowing embryonic eavesdropping

01 Jul 2019

Sound is arguably the external cue most accessible to embryos of many species, and as such may constitute an unrivalled source of early information. Recent evidence shows that prenatal sounds, similarly to maternal effects, may shape developmental trajectories. Establishing whether parental vocalisations are signals directed at embryos, or parental cues on which embryos eavesdrop, can elucidate whether parents or embryos control developmental outcomes. Prenatal exposure to a characteristic heat-related parental call was recently shown to alter zebra finch growth and fitness. Here, we test the ecological context of this behaviour in the wild, and assess the information value and specificity of this vocalisation for an embryonic audience. We show that wild zebra finches also produce this characteristic call, only at high temperatures. In addition, in the lab, we demonstrate experimentally that calling is specifically triggered by high air temperatures, can occur without an embryonic audience, and importantly, is predicted by individuals’ body mass. Overall, our findings reveal a specialised heat vocalisation that enables embryonic eavesdropping, by indicating high ambient temperatures, and parents’ capacity to cope with such conditions. This challenges the traditional view of embryos as passive agents of their development, and opens exciting research avenues on avian adaptation to extreme heat.