How and when do lambs recognize the bleats of their mothers?

Frédéric Sèbe, Thierry Aubin, Raymond Nowak, Olivier Sèbe, Gaëlle Perrin, Pascal Poindron (2011). How and when do lambs recognize the bleats of their mothers? . Bioacoustics, Volume 20 (3): 341 -356

In domestic sheep Ovis aries, the mother and the young display a preferential bond for each other that relies on multimodal inter-individual recognition. Lambs show a preference for their own dam shortly after birth, and this is important for their survival. The role of acoustic cues in this early preference for the mother is not clear. The aim of the present work was to analyze the timing of acoustic recognition of the mother and to identify the physical parameters used in the recognition of maternal bleats by the lamb.
In a first study, we investigated the ability of lambs to discriminate between the bleats of their own mother and an alien equivalent mother in a two-choice test. Both ewes were hidden behind a canvas sheet and lambs were not allowed to approach the dams closer than 1 m, thus preventing visual as well as olfactory perception. Tests were conducted 12 hr, 24 hr or 48 hr after birth (n=19 or 20/group). An indication of vocal discrimination was already present at 24 hr and at 48 hr lambs spent significantly more time near their mother than near the alien dam. In a second step, we investigated which physical parameters of the bleats were important for recognition. For this, we conducted playback experiments with modified bleats at two weeks postpartum. Ours results show that lambs pay attention to a combination of various time, energy and frequency parameters: timbre (distribution of energy within the spectrum), amplitude and frequency modulations appear to be the most important parameters encoding the individual signature.
We conclude that vocal recognition between the ewe and her lamb plays an important role in the display of preferential mother-young bond from very early on. Our studies also demonstrate that the encoding of the individual signature is not limited to the frequency domain but rather involves a multiparametric encoding process.


vocal recognition, sheep, bleats, playback, maternal behaviour