Spectrograms of playback vocalizations from Heterospecific eavesdropping in ant-following birds of the Neotropics is a learned behaviour

Animals eavesdrop on other species to obtain information about their environments. Heterospecific eavesdropping can yield tangible fitness benefits by providing valuable information about food resources and predator presence. The ability to eavesdrop may, therefore, be under strong selection, although extensive research on alarm-calling in avian mixed-species flocks has found only limited evidence that close association with another species could select for innate signal recognition. Nevertheless, very little is known about the evolution of eavesdropping behaviour and the mechanism of heterospecific signal recognition, particularly in other ecological contexts, such as foraging. To understand whether heterospecific signal recognition was an innate or learned behaviour in a foraging context, we studied heterospecific signal recognition in ant-following birds of the Neotropics, which eavesdrop on vocalizations of obligate ant-following species to locate and recruit to swarms of the army ant <i>Eciton burchellii</i>, a profitable food resource. We used a playback experiment to compare recruitment of ant-following birds to vocalizations of two obligate species at a mainland site (where both species are present) and a nearby island site (where one species remains whereas the other went extinct approx. 40 years ago). We found that ant-following birds recruited strongly to playbacks of the obligate species present at both island and mainland sites, but the island birds did not recruit to playbacks of the absent obligate species. Our results strongly suggest that (i) ant-following birds learn to recognize heterospecific vocalizations from ecological experience and (ii) island birds no longer recognize the locally extinct obligate species after eight generations of absence from the island. Although learning appears to be the mechanism of heterospecific signal recognition in ant-following birds, more experimental tests are needed to fully understand the evolution of eavesdropping behaviour.