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Whispering to the Deaf: Communication by a Frog without External Vocal Sac or Tympanum in Noisy Environments
Published: Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Author: Renaud Boistel et al.

by Renaud Boistel, Thierry Aubin, Peter Cloetens, Max Langer, Brigitte Gillet, Patrice Josset, Nicolas Pollet, Anthony Herrel

Atelopus franciscus is a diurnal bufonid frog that lives in South-American tropical rain forests. As in many other frogs, males produce calls to defend their territories and attract females. However, this species is a so-called “earless” frog lacking an external tympanum and is thus anatomically deaf. Moreover, A. franciscus has no external vocal sac and lives in a sound constraining environment along river banks where it competes with other calling frogs. Despite these constraints, male A. franciscus reply acoustically to the calls of conspecifics in the field. To resolve this apparent paradox, we studied the vocal apparatus and middle-ear, analysed signal content of the calls, examined sound and signal content propagation in its natural habitat, and performed playback experiments. We show that A. franciscus males can produce only low intensity calls that propagate a short distance (<8 m) as a result of the lack of an external vocal sac. The species-specific coding of the signal is based on the pulse duration, providing a simple coding that is efficient as it allows discrimination from calls of sympatric frogs. Moreover, the signal is redundant and consequently adapted to noisy environments. As such a coding system can be efficient only at short-range, territory holders established themselves at short distances from each other. Finally, we show that the middle-ear of A. franciscus does not present any particular adaptations to compensate for the lack of an external tympanum, suggesting the existence of extra-tympanic pathways for sound propagation.