Dip listening and the cocktail party problem in grey treefrogs: Signal recognition in temporally fluctuating noise

Anim Behav. 2011 Dec;82(6):1319-1327. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.09.015.


Dip listening refers to our ability to catch brief "acoustic glimpses" of speech and other sounds when fluctuating background noise levels momentarily decrease. Exploiting dips in natural fluctuations of noise contributes to our ability to overcome the "cocktail party problem" of understanding speech in multi-talker social environments. We presently know little about how nonhuman animals solve analogous communication problems. Here, we asked whether female grey treefrogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) might benefit from dip listening in selecting a mate in the noisy social setting of a breeding chorus. Consistent with a dip listening hypothesis, subjects recognized conspecific calls at lower thresholds when the dips in a chorus-like noise masker were long enough to allow glimpses of nine or more consecutive pulses. No benefits of dip listening were observed when dips were shorter and included five or fewer pulses. Recognition thresholds were higher when the noise fluctuated at a rate similar to the pulse rate of the call. In a second experiment, advertisement calls comprising six to nine pulses were necessary to elicit responses under quiet conditions. Together, these results suggest that in frogs, the benefits of dip listening are constrained by neural mechanisms underlying temporal pattern recognition. These constraints have important implications for the evolution of male signalling strategies in noisy social environments.