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Conserved alarm calls but rapid auditory learning in monkey responses to novel flying objects


To evaluate the flexibility in vocal production and comprehension in a non-human primate, we presented a drone to West African green monkeys, Chlorocebus sabaeus. Calls given in response to the drone were clearly distinct from those given to other predators, but highly similar to the aerial alarm calls of the East African vervet monkey, Chlorocebus pygerythrus, suggesting that call structure is conserved. To probe how rapidly the animals attached meaning to the sound of the drone, we played back the drone sound after one to three exposures. Subjects immediately scanned the sky and ran for cover. In contrast to vocal production, comprehension learning was rapid and open-ended.

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Fig. 1: Structure and discriminability of green and vervet monkey alarm calls.
Fig. 2: Response to drone and control playbacks.

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We thank R. Seyfarth, D. Cheney and T. Struhsaker for sharing their recordings and insights into vervet monkey communication. Approval and research permission were granted by the Direction des Parcs Nationaux and the Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Protection de la Nature de la République du Sénégal (research permit Nos. 0373/10/3/2012 and 1480/11/11/2016). Research was conducted within the regulations set by Senegalese agencies. We thank Equipe Simenti for assistance with the data collection and L. Ehrenreich for logistic support and help with compilation of Fig. 1. Funding from the Leibniz ScienceCampus Primate Cognition is gratefully acknowledged.

Author information




F.W., K.H. and J.F. conceived the study. F.W. conducted the experiment. F.W., K.H. and J.F. conducted the acoustic and statistical analyses. J.F. wrote the paper with input from all authors.

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Correspondence to Julia Fischer.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–4 and Supplementary Tables 1–6

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Supplementary Video

Response of green monkey female to the playback of the drone sound

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Wegdell, F., Hammerschmidt, K. & Fischer, J. Conserved alarm calls but rapid auditory learning in monkey responses to novel flying objects. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 1039–1042 (2019).

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