Finding your mate at a cocktail party: Frequency separation promotes auditory stream segregation of concurrent voices in multi-species frog choruses

Vivek Nityananda, Mark A. Bee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Vocal communication in crowded social environments is a difficult problem for both humans and nonhuman animals. Yet many important social behaviors require listeners to detect, recognize, and discriminate among signals in a complex acoustic milieu comprising the overlapping signals of multiple individuals, often of multiple species. Humans exploit a relatively small number of acoustic cues to segregate overlapping voices (as well as other mixtures of concurrent sounds, like polyphonic music). By comparison, we know little about how nonhuman animals are adapted to solve similar communication problems. One important cue enabling source segregation in human speech communication is that of frequency separation between concurrent voices: differences in frequency promote perceptual segregation of overlapping voices into separate "auditory streams" that can be followed through time. In this study, we show that frequency separation (ΔF) also enables frogs to segregate concurrent vocalizations, such as those routinely encountered in mixed-species breeding choruses. We presented female gray treefrogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) with a pulsed target signal (simulating an attractive conspecific call) in the presence of a continuous stream of distractor pulses (simulating an overlapping, unattractive heterospecific call). When the ΔF between target and distractor was small (e.g., ≤3 semitones), females exhibited low levels of responsiveness, indicating a failure to recognize the target as an attractive signal when the distractor had a similar frequency. Subjects became increasingly more responsive to the target, as indicated by shorter latencies for phonotaxis, as the ΔF between target and distractor increased (e.g., ΔF = 6-12 semitones). These results support the conclusion that gray treefrogs, like humans, can exploit frequency separation as a perceptual cue to segregate concurrent voices in noisy social environments. The ability of these frogs to segregate concurrent voices based on frequency separation may involve ancient hearing mechanisms for source segregation shared with humans and other vertebrates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere21191
JournalPloS one
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2011


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