A researcher's guide to the comparative assessment of vocal production learning

Ella Z. Lattenkamp*, Stephen G. Hoerpel, Janine Mengede, Uwe Firzlaff

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


Vocal production learning (VPL) is the capacity to learn to produce new vocalizations, which is a rare ability in the animal kingdom and thus far has only been identified in a handful of mammalian taxa and three groups of birds. Over the last few decades, approaches to the demonstration of VPL have varied among taxa, sound production systems and functions. These discrepancies strongly impede direct comparisons between studies. In the light of the growing number of experimental studies reporting VPL, the need for comparability is becoming more and more pressing. The comparative evaluation of VPL across studies would be facilitated by unified and generalized reporting standards, which would allow a better positioning of species on any proposed VPL continuum. In this paper, we specifically highlight five factors influencing the comparability of VPL assessments: (i) comparison to an acoustic baseline, (ii) comprehensive reporting of acoustic parameters, (iii) extended reporting of training conditions and durations, (iv) investigating VPL function via behavioural, perception-based experiments and (v) validation of findings on a neuronal level. These guidelines emphasize the importance of comparability between studies in order to unify the field of vocal learning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20200237
Number of pages8
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1836
Early online date6 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 25 Oct 2021


  • Cross-species comparison
  • Vocal production learning
  • Comparative VPL assessment
  • Vocal learning quality


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