Finding a mate at a cocktail party: spatial release from masking improves acoustic mate recognition in grey treefrogs

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The 'cocktail party problem' refers to the difficulty that humans have in recognizing speech in noisy social environments. Many nonhuman animals also communicate acoustically in noisy social aggregations, and thus also encounter and solve cocktail-party-like problems. Relatively few studies, however, have investigated the processes by which nonhuman animals solve sound source segregation problems in the behaviourally relevant context of acoustic communication. In humans, 'spatial release from masking' contributes to sound source segregation by improving the ability of listeners to recognize speech that is spatially separated from other sources of speech or 'speech-shaped' masking noise. Using a phonotaxis paradigm, I tested the hypothesis that spatial release from masking improves the ability of female grey treefrogs, Hyla chrysoscelis, to discriminate between conspecific and heterospecific calls that were spatially separated from two sources of 'chorus-shaped' masking noise by either 15° or 90°. As the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) was decreased from +3 dB to -15 dB (by decreasing the signal level in 6-dB steps), fewer females made a choice, and the likelihood of a female choosing the heterospecific call also increased. At a SNR of -3 dB, females oriented towards and chose the conspecific call in the 90° separation condition, but not when signals and maskers were separated by 15°. These results support the hypothesis that a well-known solution to the cocktail party problem in humans, spatial release from masking, also plays a role in acoustic signal recognition in animals that communicate in biological equivalents of cocktail-party-like environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1781-1791
Number of pages11
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2008

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I thank John Moriarty and the Ramsey County Parks Department for access to the Tamarack Nature Center, Madeleine Linck and the Three Rivers Park District for access to the Carver Park Reserve, and Daniel Rhode and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for access to the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. Laura Corcoran, Laura Cremin, Michael Kuczynski, Reid Olsen, Kasen Riemersma, Nathan Rogers, Eli Swanson, Sandra Tekmen and Alejandro Velez provided helpful assistance in collecting and testing frogs. Alejandro Velez provided helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. This research adhered to the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour/Animal Behavior Society Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Research, the legal requirements of the U.S.A. and all institutional guidelines, and was approved by the University of Minnesota's IACUC (No. 0510A76966) on 14 November 2006. Animal collections were made under Special Permit 14278 from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. This work was supported by a Grant-in-Aid from the Dean of the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota and NIDCD DC008396.


  • Hyla chrysoscelis
  • acoustic communication
  • cocktail party problem
  • communication
  • gray treefrog
  • grey treefrog
  • sound source segregation
  • spatial release from masking
  • spatial unmasking
  • vocal communication


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