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Curr Biol. 2007 Mar 6;17(5):425-30. Epub 2007 Feb 22.

Vocal-tract resonances as indexical cues in rhesus monkeys.

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Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, 72076 Tuebingen, Germany.


Vocal-tract resonances (or formants) are acoustic signatures in the voice and are related to the shape and length of the vocal tract. Formants play an important role in human communication, helping us not only to distinguish several different speech sounds [1], but also to extract important information related to the physical characteristics of the speaker, so-called indexical cues. How did formants come to play such an important role in human vocal communication? One hypothesis suggests that the ancestral role of formant perception--a role that might be present in extant nonhuman primates--was to provide indexical cues [2-5]. Although formants are present in the acoustic structure of vowel-like calls of monkeys [3-8] and implicated in the discrimination of call types [8-10], it is not known whether they use this feature to extract indexical cues. Here, we investigate whether rhesus monkeys can use the formant structure in their "coo" calls to assess the age-related body size of conspecifics. Using a preferential-looking paradigm [11, 12] and synthetic coo calls in which formant structure simulated an adult/large- or juvenile/small-sounding individual, we demonstrate that untrained monkeys attend to formant cues and link large-sounding coos to large faces and small-sounding coos to small faces-in essence, they can, like humans [13], use formants as indicators of age-related body size.

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