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Abstract Most studies addressing the development of animal communication have focused on signal production rather than receiver decoding, and similar emphasis has been given to learning over nonlearning. But receivers are an integral part of a communication network, and nonlearned mechanisms appear to be more ubiquitous than learned ones in the communication systems of most animals. Here we review the results of recent experiments and outline future directions for integrative studies on the development of a primarily nonlearned behaviour—recognition of communication signals during ontogeny in a tropical frog. The results suggest that antecedents to adult behaviours might be a common feature of developing organisms. Given the essential role that acoustic communication serves in reproduction for many organisms and that receivers can exert strong influence on the evolution of signals, understanding the evolutionary developmental basis of mate recognition will provide new insights into the evolution of communication systems.