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Background: Male sexually selected vocalisations generally contain both individuality and quality cues that are crucial in intra- as well as inter-sexual communication. As individuality is a fixed feature whereas male phenotypic quality changes with age, individuality and quality cues may be subjected to different selection pressures over time. Individuality (for example, morphology of the vocal apparatus) and quality (for example, body size and dominance status) can both affect the vocal production mechanism, inducing the same components of vocalisations to convey both kinds of information. In this case, do quality-related changes to the acoustic structure of calls induce a modification of vocal cues to identity from year to year? We investigated this question in fallow deer (Dama dama), in which some acoustic parameters of vocalisations (groans) code for both individuality and quality.

Results: We carried out a longitudinal analysis of groan individuality, examining the effects of age and dominance rank on the acoustic structure of groans of the same males recorded during consecutive years. We found both age- and rank-related changes to groans; the minimum values of the highest formant frequencies and the fundamental frequency increased with the age of males and they decreased when males became more dominant. Both age- and rank-related acoustic parameters contributed to individuality. Male quality changed with age, inducing a change in quality-related parameters and thus, a modification of vocal cues to male individuality between years.

Conclusions: The encoding of individuality and quality information in the same components of vocalisations induces a tradeoff between these two kinds of signals over time. Fallow deer vocalisations are honest signals of quality that are not fixed over time but are modified dynamically according to male quality. As they are more reliable cues to quality than to individuality, they may not be used by conspecifics to recognize a given male from one year to another, but potentially used by both sexes to assess male quality during each breeding season.