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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Jan 30;104(5):1581-6. Epub 2007 Jan 23.

Context modulates signal meaning in primate communication.

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Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA.


A central issue in the evolution of social complexity and the evolution of communication concerns the capacity to communicate about increasingly abstract objects and concepts. Many animals can communicate about immediate behavior, but to date, none have been reported to communicate about behavior during future interactions. In this study, we show that a special, unidirectional, cost-free dominance-related signal used by monkeys (pigtailed macaques: Macaca nemestrina) means submission (immediate behavior) or subordination (pattern of behavior) depending on the context of usage. We hypothesize that to decrease receiver uncertainty that the signal object is subordination, senders shift contextual usage from the conflict context, where the signal evolved, to a peaceful one, in which submission is unwarranted. We predict and find that deceasing receiver uncertainty through peaceful signal exchange facilitates the development of higher quality social relationships: Individuals exchanging the peaceful variant groom and reconcile more frequently and fight less frequently than individuals exchanging signals only in the conflict context or no signals. We rule out alternative hypotheses, including an underlying reciprocity rule, temperament, and proximity effects. Our results suggest that primates can communicate about behavioral patterns when these concern relationship rules. The invention of signals decreasing uncertainty about relationship state is likely to have been critical for the evolution of social complexity and to the emergence of robust power structures that feed down to influence rapidly changing individual behavior.

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