Calls out of chaos: The adaptive significance of nonlinear phenomena in mammalian vocal production

W. Tecumseh Fitch, Juergen Neubauer, Hanspeter Herzel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

260 Scopus citations


Recent work on human vocal production demonstrates that certain irregular phenomena seen in human pathological voices and baby crying result from nonlinearities in the vocal production system. Equivalent phenomena are quite common in nonhuman mammal vocal repertoires. In particular, bifurcations and chaos are ubiquitous aspects of the normal adult repertoire in many primate species. Here we argue that these phenomena result from properties inherent in the peripheral production mechanism, which allows individuals to generate highly complex and unpredictable vocalizations without requiring equivalently complex neural control mechanisms. We provide examples from the vocal repertoire of rhesus macaques, Macaca mulatta, and other species illustrating the different classes of nonlinear phenomena, and review the concepts from nonlinear dynamics that explicate these calls. Finally, we discuss the evolutionary significance of nonlinear vocal phenomena. We suggest that nonlinear phenomena may subserve individual recognition and the estimation of size or fluctuating asymmetry from vocalizations. Furthermore, neurally 'cheap' unpredictability may serve the valuable adaptive function of making chaotic calls difficult to predict and ignore. While noting that nonlinear phenomena are in some cases probably nonadaptive by-products of the physics of the sound-generating mechanism, we suggest that these functional hypotheses provide at least a partial explanation for the ubiquity of nonlinear calls in nonhuman vocal repertoires.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)407-418
Number of pages12
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2002
Externally publishedYes


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology

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