Social life and flexibility of vocal behaviour in Diana monkeys and other cercopithecids
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Recent studies on the social life and vocal production, usage and comprehension of nonhuman primates have brought new insights into the evolutionary mechanisms of cognition and communication as well as the emergence of language. A key point in the current literature concerns the flexibility of vocal production. In contrast to humans, some birds and some cetaceans, vocal flexibility is thought to be very restricted in nonhuman primates, which creates a startling phylogenetic gap. At the same time, research has shown that a number of African forest guenons’ alarm calls appear to have language-like properties. With the hypothesis that looking at the vocal repertoire more broadly, especially the social calls, was likely to reveal other complex communicative abilities, I studied in detail the social life and vocal behaviour of a guenon species, Diana monkeys. First, the comparison of its social system with the system of another closely related species, Campbell’s monkeys, stressed in both species the reduced number of physical interactions, although females maintained preferential relationships that were not biased towards kin. Second, the study of Diana females’ vocal repertoire is restricted but flexible. Females emit social calls with a combinatorial structure, the use of which is affected by external events. Third, focusing on a highly frequent and highly social call revealed flexibility in the identity advertisement (divergence – convergence) which accommodates to the context. Fourth, to explore the nature of nonhuman primates’ comprehension skills, I performed playback experiments of De Brazza monkey social calls to three species of Old World monkeys; Campbell’s monkeys, black-and-white colobus monkeys and red-capped mangabeys. Altogether, the three species were able to discriminate hetero-specific voices of individuals they knew from individuals they had never met. Overall, my results have revealed a considerable degree of flexibility in the vocal communication of nonhuman primates, a finding that is consistent with the hypothesis of a continuous evolutionary transition from animal vocal behaviour to human language.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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