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AbstractPrimate vocal behavior is often considered irrelevant in modeling human language evolution, mainly because of the caller’s limited vocal control and apparent lack of intentional signaling. Here, we present the results of a long-term study on Campbell’s monkeys, which has revealed an unrivaled degree of vocal complexity. Adult males produced six different loud call types, which they combined into various sequences in highly context-specific ways. We found stereotyped sequences that were strongly associated with cohesion and travel, falling trees, neighboring groups, nonpredatory animals, unspecific predatory threat, and specific predator classes. Within the responses to predators, we found that crowned eagles triggered four and leopards three different sequences, depending on how the caller learned about their presence. Callers followed a number of principles when concatenating sequences, such as nonrandom transition probabilities of call types, addition of specific calls into an existing sequence to form a different one, or recombination of two sequences to form a third one. We conclude that these primates have overcome some of the constraints of limited vocal control by combinatorial organization. As the different sequences were so tightly linked to specific external events, the Campbell’s monkey call system may be the most complex example of ‘proto-syntax’ in animal communication known to date.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 2009, 106 (51), 22026-22031