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Cultural transmission of vocal dialect in the naked mole-rat

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Science  29 Jan 2021:
Vol. 371, Issue 6528, pp. 503-507
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc6588

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The queen's chirp rules

Naked mole-rats are known for their eusocial lifestyle, living in colonies that consist of many workers and a single breeding queen. Little is known about how individuals within these colonies navigate the many interactions that must occur in such a complex cooperative group. Barker et al. show that calls emitted by individuals, in particular the common “chirp” call, convey information specific to the animal's group (see the Perspective by Buffenstein). Group differences are cultural, rather than genetic, and are related to the queen: Cross-fostered pups adopt their rearing colony's dialects, and dialects change with queen replacement.

Science, this issue p. 503; see also p. 461

Abstract

Naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) form some of the most cooperative groups in the animal kingdom, living in multigenerational colonies under the control of a single breeding queen. Yet how they maintain this highly organized social structure is unknown. Here we show that the most common naked mole-rat vocalization, the soft chirp, is used to transmit information about group membership, creating distinctive colony dialects. Audio playback experiments demonstrate that individuals make preferential vocal responses to home colony dialects. Pups fostered in foreign colonies in early postnatal life learn the vocal dialect of their adoptive colonies, which suggests vertical transmission and flexibility of vocal signatures. Dialect integrity is partly controlled by the queen: Dialect cohesiveness decreases with queen loss and remerges only with the ascendance of a new queen.

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