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Monkeys pick up local “accents”

Dec. 16, 2011
Courtesy of BioMed Central
and World Science staff

Apes and mon­keys have re­gion­al “ac­cents”—and as with peo­ple, this be­hav­ior is learnt rath­er than ge­net­ic­ally pro­grammed, a study sug­gests.

To what extent an­i­mal com­mu­nica­t­ion is learnt rather than in­born is hotly de­bat­ed. Mon­keys and apes, some of the clos­est ev­o­lu­tion­ary rel­a­tives to hu­mans, seem to be born with a range of calls and sounds spe­cif­ic to the spe­cies. 
But over­ly­ing this there seems to be some flex­i­bil­ity: for ex­am­ple, you can tell where a gib­bon, a type of ape, is from by its ac­cent.

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In the new re­search, pub­lished in the jour­nal BMC Ev­o­lu­tion­ary Bi­ol­o­gy, sci­en­tists stud­ied free-liv­ing mon­keys of the spe­cies Cer­co­p­ithe­cus camp­belli camp­belli, al­so known as Camp­bel­l’s mon­keys. They ob­served so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, in par­tic­u­lar time spent in mu­tu­al groom­ing, and recorded “con­tact calls” made by fe­males to stay in tou­ch with oth­er mon­keys while trav­el­ing, for­ag­ing or rest­ing.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors used DNA tests from mon­key drop­pings to de­ter­mine how closely re­lat­ed dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­u­als were. Their so­cial struc­ture and family groups were al­so well known be­cause they have lived near a re­search sta­t­ion at Taï Na­tional Park, Ivo­ry Coast, for more than a dec­ade. Groups con­sisted of one ma­le, four or six fe­ma­les, and their off­spring.

“Each female has its own dis­tinc­tive vo­calisa­t­ion but they ap­pear to pick up habits from each oth­er,” said Al­ban Lemas­son of the Uni­vers­ity of Rennes in France, who led the re­search.

Si­m­i­lar­i­ties be­tween “con­tact calls” de­pended on the length of time adult fe­males spent groom­ing each oth­er, and who their groom­ing part­ner was, rath­er than ge­net­ic re­lat­edness, he ob­served. This means that while the gen­er­al call rep­er­toire de­pends on genes, he ex­plained, “the fi­ne struc­ture with­in this is in­flu­enced by the com­pa­ny they kep­t.”

“This be­hav­iour al­so fits with the the­o­ry that hu­man speech has evolved grad­u­ally from an­ces­tral pri­mate vo­calisa­t­ions and so­cial pat­terns,” he added. Pri­ma­tes are the ev­o­lu­tion­ary line­age of an­i­mals com­pris­ing hu­mans and their close rel­a­tives, such as apes.


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Apes and monkeys have regional “accents”—and as with people, this behavior is learnt rather than genetically programmed, a study suggests. The role of social structure in animal communication is hotly debated. Monkeys and apes, some of the closest evolutionary relatives to humans, seem to be born with a range of calls and sounds specific to the species. But overlying this there seems to be some flexibility: for example, you can discern where a gibbon, a type of ape, is from by its accent. The new research, published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, investigated to what extent such behaviors are learnt rather than innate. Scientists studied free-living monkeys of the species Cercopithecus campbelli campbelli, also known as Campbell’s monkeys, from the Taï National Park, Ivory Coast. They observed social interactions, in particular time spent in mutual grooming, and recorded “contact calls” made by females to stay in touch with other monkeys while travelling, foraging or resting. The investigators used DNA tests from monkey droppings to determine how closely related different individuals were. Their social structure and family groups were also well known because they have lived near a research station for more than a decade. Groups consisted of one male, four or six females, and their offspring. “Each female has its own distinctive vocalisation but they appear to pick up habits from each other,” said Alban Lemasson of the University of Rennes in France, who led the research. Similarities between “contact calls” depended on the length of time adult females spent grooming each other, and who their grooming partner was, rather than genetic relatedness, he observed. This means that while the general call repertoire depends on genes, he explained, “the fine structure within this is influenced by the company they kept.” “This behaviour also fits with the theory that human speech has evolved gradually from ancestral primate vocalisations and social patterns,” he added. Primates are the evolutionary lineage of animals comprising humans and their close relatives, such as apes.