Mammal Communication Lab


We are working on various aspects of mammal communication, in particular focusing on the sound production and perception, and the 
kinds of information vocal signals can provide listeners with (e.g., physical and motivational attributes of the caller).

In addition we are interested in vocal learning, vocal ontogeny and how maturational, environmental and social affects influence call ontogeny in different species.

The main species we are working on are African savannah and Asian elephants (with one running FWF project), but research on various additional species is in progress: Giant pandas, giraffes, cheetahs and the Tasmanian devil. We are privileged to have numerous collaborations with research and animal keeping institutions worldwide, from South Africa to China, which enables us to study species normally hard to access.

Lab leader: Dr. Mag. Angela Stoeger

Lab members: Mag. Anton Baotic, Dipl.Biol. Veronika Beeck

Master students: Evelyn Fuchs, Kathi Prager, Florian Hüls

Curent Research

The functional relevance of vocal learning in elephants project number P 31034

In the last decade clear evidence has accumulated that elephants are capable of vocal learning. The term ‘vocal learning’ refers specifically to ‘vocal production learning’ in which signallers modify the structure of their vocalizations in response to auditory experience, i.e. by vocal imitation. Vocal learning is especially rare among mammals. Humans are versatile vocal learners, but otherwise vocal learning is not well developed in primates. Among non-primate mammals, only whales, dolphins, seals and bats have been previously shown to be capable of vocal learning.
A general idea on the function of vocal learning in social mammals is that vocalizations are an indicator of group membership. Some social group-living species (toothed whales, bats and humans) possess vocal dialects or accents (that arise through call convergence) shared by social affiliates.
The overarching goal of this project is to explore the functional relevance of vocal learning in wild African elephants. I specifically suggest that vocal production learning in elephants facilitates vocal convergence leading to vocal dialects as a mechanism for creating and reinforcing social bonds among affiliated individuals of matrilineal family groups.

Previous Research Projects

Research project FWF P26448 "The adaptive significance of formant modulation in elephant vocalizations"

Vocal tract resonances or formant frequencies (formants) are a very important means of transferring information in human speech. The perceptual relevance and functions of formants in nonhuman mammal vocal communication systems, however, remain less well understood.

In the context of this project, we will investigate whether formants in
African elephant low-frequency rumbles provide constant information on
physical and motivational attributes of the caller. Since next to nothing
is known about elephant bull signals and especially male vocalizations in 
vertebrates are often subject to sexual selection, there will be a strong
 focus on male elephant vocalizations and behaviour.
We will use re-synthesis techniques and playback experiments to determine 
the perceptual and functional relevance of specific acoustic
 characteristics of elephant rumbles; in particular, we aim to examine 
whether the size exaggeration hypothesis also applies to elephants, the
 largest terrestrial mammal.

Research Project FWF P23099 “Automatic detection of elephant vocalizations”

Collaborative Research: Development of an acoustic early warning system

In collaboration with Dipl. Ing. Dr. Matthias Zeppelzauer from the Media Computing
Institut für Creative\Media/Technologies, Fachhochschule St. Pölten, we establish an acoustic monitoring system for elephants. The decline of habitat for elephants as a result of expanding human activity combined with increasing elephant numbers in spatially separated clusters of conservation areas is a serious conservation problem in Africa. Nearly 80% of the distributional range of elephants in Southern Africa stretches beyond the borders of officially protected areas. This fact leads to deadly conflicts between humans and elephants.

We want to alleviate these conflicts by the development of early acoustic warning and information systems (making use of the low frequency vocalizations) for humans living near the corridors who regularly get into serious conflict with traveling elephants.

The goals of the project are (i) to investigate the complex vocal communication system of elephants in more detail (including vocal dialects) and (ii) to develop automatic analysis techniques that are able to robustly recognize and classify elephant calls from data obtained under natural conditions.

Reuters presentation

Research on other species:

Giant Panda: Vocal repertoire and functional relevance of infant Giant Panda vocalizations (in collaboration with the Bifengxia panda base, China)


Tasmanian devil: This marsupial species is known for its high vocal activity; however, the biological relevance of devil vocalizations is largely unknown. In collaboration with the Zoo Copenhagen and Australian-wide conservation and breeding Centre’s this project aims to increase the knowledge of the devil’s vocalizations and their use in social and reproductive contexts.


Giraffes: Not a highly vocal species, but Giraffes do produce vocalizations in particular contexts. In collaboration with Dr. Roland Frey (IZW Berlin), we investigate the acoustic structure and the potential function of Giraffe vocalizations, as well as the vocal tract anatomy. 

Cheetah: upcoming research focusing on contact calling and vocal communication in reproductive contexts.

Study Sites

·      Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

·      Advantures with Elephants, Bela Bela, South Africa

·      AERU (African Elephant Research Unit), Knysna Elephant Park, South Africa

·      Elephant Whisperers, Hazyview, South Africa

·      Pilanesberg Elephant Back Safaries, South Africa

·      China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda,

Ya'an , P.R., China

·      Zoos: Vienna Zoo, Salzburg Zoo, Hirschstetten Zoo, Copenhagen Zoo, Basle Zoo, Leipzig Zoo, Wuppertal Zoo, Berlin Zoo, Emmen Zoo, Heidelberg Zoo, San Diego Zoo

Interesting links (media reports) with information about our research

Current Research Collaborations

Tiger Tops There Lodge, Chitwan, Nepal

Dipl. Ing. Gunnar Heilman, Gfai Tech GmbH, Berlin, Germany

Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

Advantures with Elephants, Bela Bela, South Africa

AERU (African Elephant Research Unit), Knysna Elephant Park
Dr. Dipl. Ing. Mattias Teppelzauer und Prof. Christian Breiteneder, Institute for Software Technology and Interactive Systems, Vienna University of Technology, Vienna,

Dr. Andre Ganswindt, Section of Reproduction, Department of Production Animal Studies, University of Pretoria, Onderstepoort, South Africa

Dr. Shermin de Sliva, Society for Conservation Biology, Asia Section, Smithsonian Institution, Trunks & Leaves Inc., Elephant Research Projekt, 1/657 Thanamalwila Road, Udawalawe, Sri Lanka, email.:

Dr. Florian Sicks, Curator at the Tiergarten Berlin, Germany,

Dr. Andrea Ravignani, Artificial Intelligence Lab, Vrije University Brussel,

Zoo Salzburg

Zoopark Erfurt