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Anim Cogn. 2014 Mar;17(2):277-86. doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0660-9. Epub 2013 Jul 12.

Meaning attribution in the West African green monkey: influence of call type and context.

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  • 1Cognitive Ethology Lab, German Primate Center, Göttingen, Germany,


The search for the evolutionary roots of human language has fuelled much research into the cognitive mechanisms underlying communication in nonhuman animals. One core issue has been whether the context-specific calls of nonhuman animals are meaningful, with call meaning inferred from recipients' responses in the absence of supporting contextual cues. This direct inference may well offer an oversimplified view of how vocalisations are perceived, however, as responses under natural conditions are likely guided by contextual cues as well as by the signal. In this study, we investigate how the anti-predator responses of green monkeys, Chlorocebus sabaeus, are affected by alarm call structure and by context. We first simulated the presence of leopards and snakes to elicit alarm vocalisations and to identify predator-typical response behaviours. In both contexts, the monkeys produced chirp calls that revealed only graded variation in relation to predator type. We then carried out playback experiments to explore whether green monkeys would respond with predator-typical behaviour to leopard and snake chirps, and whether contextual cues, in the form of pre-exposure to a leopard or snake model, would modify these responses. Irrespective of context, subjects were more likely to respond to leopard chirps with a leopard-typical response. Predator priming did not have a significant effect on the type of response, but, together with call type, did affect response duration. This suggests that the immediate attribution of meaning was influenced by acoustic cues, whilst receiver's prior knowledge was incorporated to guide subsequent behaviour.

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