Spectral timbre perception in ferrets: discrimination of artificial vowels under different listening conditions.
Bizley JK., Walker KM., King AJ., Schnupp JW.
Spectral timbre is an acoustic feature that enables human listeners to determine the identity of a spoken vowel. Despite its importance to sound perception, little is known about the neural representation of sound timbre and few psychophysical studies have investigated timbre discrimination in non-human species. In this study, ferrets were positively conditioned to discriminate artificial vowel sounds in a two-alternative-forced-choice paradigm. Animals quickly learned to discriminate the vowel sound /u/ from /ε/ and were immediately able to generalize across a range of voice pitches. They were further tested in a series of experiments designed to assess how well they could discriminate these vowel sounds under different listening conditions. First, a series of morphed vowels was created by systematically shifting the location of the first and second formant frequencies. Second, the ferrets were tested with single formant stimuli designed to assess which spectral cues they could be using to make their decisions. Finally, vowel discrimination thresholds were derived in the presence of noise maskers presented from either the same or a different spatial location. These data indicate that ferrets show robust vowel discrimination behavior across a range of listening conditions and that this ability shares many similarities with human listeners.