Oral communication is much more widespread in vertebrate animals than we thought. This is the main conclusion of new research published in the journal Nature Communications that shows that, instead of evolving independently in many animals , vocal communication arose in a common ancestor more than 400 million years ago and that it is much more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously believed, despite being the usual territory of songbirds, frogs or dogs.
Certainly, despite its importance, little is known about when and at what stage in vertebrate evolutionary history this behavior first appeared.
Researcher Gabriel Jorgewich-Cohen of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and colleagues collected recordings of 53 species previously thought to be non-vocal (making no sound at all), including the tuatara ( Sphenodon punctatus ), the Cayenne caecilian ( Typhlonectes compressicauda) , the South American lungfish ( Lepidosiren paradoxa ), and 50 species of turtles.
Reconstructing vocal history
Their study comes in the form of vocal recordings and contextual behavioral information that accompanies sound production.
“This, together with a large literature-based dataset including 1,800 different species covering the entire spectrum, shows that vocal communication is not only widespread in terrestrial vertebrates, but also evidences acoustic abilities in various groups that before they were considered non-vowel”, explains Gabriel Jorgewich-Cohen, doctoral student at the Paleontological Institute and Museum of the UZH and lead author of the work.
To investigate the evolutionary origins of acoustic communication in vertebrates, the researchers combined relevant data on the vocalization abilities of species such as lizards, snakes, salamanders or amphibians, with phylogenetic trait reconstruction methods. Combined with data from known acoustic clades such as mammals, birds, and frogs, the researchers were able to map vocal communication across the vertebrate tree of life.
A very old shared trait
The voice recordings of the marine animals mainly comprised communications about mating and hatching . For example, sea turtles make sounds from within the egg to synchronize hatching. It is a survival strategy , since if they all go out at once, they will have a better chance of surviving. Also, tortoises make mating noises and tuatara make sounds to protect their territory.
“Many turtles, for example, that were thought to be mute, in fact show wide and complex acoustic repertoires. We were able to reconstruct acoustic communication as a shared trait between these animals, which is at least as old as their last common ancestor, which lived approximately 407 million years before the present”, explains Marcelo Sánchez, who led the study.
“Our results now show that acoustic communication did not evolve multiple times in various clades, but rather has a common and ancient evolutionary origin,” the experts conclude.
Referencia: G. Jorgewich-Cohen et al. 2022. Common evolutionary origin of acoustic communication in choanate vertebrates. Nat Commun 13, 6089; doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-33741-8