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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Jul 5;367(1597):1847-59. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0218.

Derived vocalizations of geladas (Theropithecus gelada) and the evolution of vocal complexity in primates.

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Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.


Primates are intensely social and exhibit extreme variation in social structure, making them particularly well suited for uncovering evolutionary connections between sociality and vocal complexity. Although comparative studies find a correlation between social and vocal complexity, the function of large vocal repertoires in more complex societies remains unclear. We compared the vocal complexity found in primates to both mammals in general and human language in particular and found that non-human primates are not unusual in the complexity of their vocal repertoires. To better understand the function of vocal complexity within primates, we compared two closely related primates (chacma baboons and geladas) that differ in their ecology and social structures. A key difference is that gelada males form long-term bonds with the 2-12 females in their harem-like reproductive unit, while chacma males primarily form temporary consortships with females. We identified homologous and non-homologous calls and related the use of the derived non-homologous calls to specific social situations. We found that the socially complex (but ecologically simple) geladas have larger vocal repertoires. Derived vocalizations of geladas were primarily used by leader males in affiliative interactions with 'their' females. The derived calls were frequently used following fights within the unit suggesting that maintaining cross-sex bonds within a reproductive unit contributed to this instance of evolved vocal complexity. Thus, our comparison highlights the utility of using closely related species to better understand the function of vocal complexity.

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