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Monkey Alarms

March 31, 2008

Some monkeys combine their alarm calls to create an entirely new meaning.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

LaetitiaC wikipedia Putty-nosed_monkey_(Cercopithecus_nictitans)

Male putty-nosed monkeys combine their calls to create a novel signal. (LaetitiaC/Wikipedia)

Monkeys sound the alarm. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Male putty-nosed monkeys in Nigeria produce one type of alarm call to warn other monkeys that a leopard is approaching:
(SFX: pyow calls)
And another type of call when they see an eagle:
(SFX: hack calls)
This according to comparative psychologists Kate Arnold and Klaus Zuberbühler at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

KLAUS ZUBERBÜHLER (University of St. Andrews):
But then, every so often, the males gave the wrong calls in this series of calls. So he would see an eagle and start hacking – hack hack hack hack, and then suddenly produce pyow pyow, then hack hack hack again.
(SFX: Combination calls)

HIRSHON:
Every time the male combines the calls in this way, it signals all the monkeys to leave the area. This is the first time non-human primates have been observed to combine different calls to create an entirely new meaning. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society.