Collective Behaviour - Summer Seminar Series 2022
Notes from Underground: vocal communication in the naked mole-rat
Dr. Alison Barker, Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt am Main
This event is part of an event series „CASCB Seminar Series Summer 2022“.
Naked mole-rats are exceptionally long-lived (reported lifespans > 30 years), highly resistant to cancer and low oxygen conditions and live in colonies organized to support a single breeding female, queen. This type of social behavior is rare among mammals, although commonly found in the social insects: bees, wasps and ants. Yet how naked mole-rats organize and maintain their elaborate social groups is largely unknown. Recent work from our group identified a critical role for vocal communication in naked mole-rats societies. Using machine learning techniques we developed methods to automatically classify and analyze features of one vocalization type, the soft chirp, a greeting call used by naked mole-rats when they encounter one another in their subterranean habitat. We demonstrated that soft chirps encode information about individual and colony identity, suggesting the possibility of colony specific dialects. In a series of behavioral tests, we found that vocal responses were enhanced to home colony vs. foreign colony audio playbacks and to artificially generated colony-specific dialects. We further demonstrated that these dialects can be learned, as pups that were cross-fostered early in life acquired the dialect of their adoptive colonies. Colony specificity of vocal dialects is controlled in part by the presence of the queen: when the queen was lost the vocal cohesiveness of the colony dialect disintegrated.
Dr. Barker studied Biochemistry at Brown University. In 2015, she received her PhD in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Since 2021 she has been a Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt where her group studies the role of vocal communication in social cooperation. Barker’s work takes a broad evolutionary perspective to understand how multiple forms of sociality evolved and how communication, specifically vocal communication, drives cooperation from a neural circuit perspective.