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Anim Behav. 1999 Mar;57(3):583-592.

The meaning and function of grunt variants in baboons.

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  • 1Departments of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 19104, U.S.A.


Wild baboons Papio cynocephalus ursinus, give tonal, harmonically rich vocalizations, termed grunts, in at least two distinct, behavioural contexts: when about to embark on a move across an open area ('move' grunts); and when approaching mothers and attempting to inspect or handle their young infants ('infant' grunts). Grunts in these two contexts elicit different responses from receivers and appear to be acoustically distinct (Owren et al. 1997 Journal of the Acoustical Society of America101 2951-2963). Differences in responses to grunts in the two contexts may, then, be due to acoustic differences, reflecting at least a rudimentary capacity for referential signalling. Alternatively, responses may differ simply due to differences in the contexts in which the grunts are being produced. We conducted playback experiments to test between these hypotheses. Experiments were designed to control systematically the effects of both context and acoustic features so as to evaluate the role of each in determining responses to grunts. In playback trials, subjects differentiated between putative move and infant grunts. Their responses based only on the acoustic features of grunts were functionally distinct and mirrored their behaviour to naturally occurring move and infant grunts. However, subjects' responses were in some cases also affected by the context in which grunts were presented, and by an interaction between the context and the acoustic features of the grunts. Furthermore, responses to grunts were affected by the relative rank difference between the caller and the subject. These results indicate that baboon grunts can function in rudimentary referential fashion, but that the context in which grunts are produced and the social identity of callers can also affect recipients' responses. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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