Categorical perception in animal communication and decision-making

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats


Citation Stats


The information an animal gathers from its environment, including that associated with signals, often varies continuously. Animals may respond to this continuous variation in a physical stimulus as lying in discrete categories rather than along a continuum, a phenomenon known as categorical perception. Categorical perception was first described in the context of speech and thought to be uniquely associated with human language. Subsequent work has since discovered that categorical perception functions in communication and decision-making across animal taxa, behavioral contexts, and sensory modalities. We begin with an overview of how categorical perception functions in speech perception and, then, describe subsequent work illustrating its role in nonhuman animal communication and decision-making. We synthesize this work to suggest that categorical perception may be favored where there is a benefit to 1) setting consistent behavioral response rules in the face of variation and potential overlap in the physical structure of signals, 2) especially rapid decision-making, or 3) reducing the costs associated with processing and/or comparing signals. We conclude by suggesting other systems in which categorical perception may play a role as a next step toward understanding how this phenomenon may influence our thinking about the function and evolution of animal communication and decision-making.





Published Version (Please cite this version)


Publication Info

Green, PA, NC Brandley and S Nowicki (2020). Categorical perception in animal communication and decision-making. Behavioral Ecology, 31(4). pp. 859–867. 10.1093/BEHECO/ARAA004 Retrieved from

This is constructed from limited available data and may be imprecise. To cite this article, please review & use the official citation provided by the journal.



Stephen Nowicki

Professor of Biology

Our lab studies animal communication, asking both proximate and ultimate questions about how signaling systems function and how they evolve. Most of our work is done with birds, although lab members have studied a variety of other taxa. One major theme that runs through our work is to understand how signal reliability (“honesty”) is maintained in the face of the competing evolutionary interests of signal senders and receivers. We use both laboratory experiments and field-based analyses to test hypotheses about the costs of signal production, which theory suggests are necessary to maintain reliability. For example, we have demonstrated that the reliability of birdsong as a signal of quality in the context of mate choice is maintained by variation in the response of young birds to early developmental stress, which in turn affects brain development and song learning. Another theme that runs through our work concerns how animals themselves perceive signals, in particular the role of categorical perception in communication. Our work here began with birdsong, for example demonstrating context-dependent variation in category boundaries that define the smallest acoustic units of song (“notes”), and identifying categorical responses of neurons in the “song system” of the brain to variation in those notes. More recently, we have begun to study categorical perception in visual signaling, demonstrating for example that the carotenoid-based orange-red coloration commonly used in assessment signaling may be perceived categorically. This finding illustrates the connection between our interests in perception and reliability, given that canonical models of reliability assume continuous perception.

Unless otherwise indicated, scholarly articles published by Duke faculty members are made available here with a CC-BY-NC (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial) license, as enabled by the Duke Open Access Policy. If you wish to use the materials in ways not already permitted under CC-BY-NC, please consult the copyright owner. Other materials are made available here through the author’s grant of a non-exclusive license to make their work openly accessible.