Context-dependent alarm responses in wild vervet monkeys

Adwait Deshpande*, Erica van de Waal, Klaus Zuberbühler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The alarm calls of nonhuman primates are occasionally cited as functionally equivalent to lexical word meaning in human language. Recently, however, it has become increasingly unlikely that one-to-one relations between alarm call structures and predator categories are the default, mainly because many call types are produced in multiple contexts, requiring more complex notions of meaning. For example, male vervet monkeys produce the same alarm calls during encounters with terrestrial predators and neighbouring groups, suggesting that recipients require additional information to attribute meaning to the calls. We empirically tested the hypothesis that vervet monkeys take contextual information into account when responding to each other's alarm calls. In playback experiments, we exposed subjects to recordings of male alarm barks during actual intergroup encounters (predator unlikely) or when there was no intergroup encounter (predator likely). Subjects responded more strongly in the no intergroup encounter situations, typically associated with discovering a hiding predator, measured in terms of startle responses, vigilance behaviour and gazing towards the presumed caller. We discuss the significance of using contextual information for meaning attribution in nonhuman primate communication.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Cognition
Publication statusPublished - 17 Mar 2023


  • Vocal communication
  • Evolution of language
  • Nonhuman primates


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