Social Change Affects Vocal Structure in a Callitrichid Primate (Callithrix kuhlii)


Corresponding author: Michael Rukstalis, Department of Psychology, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Omaha, NE 68182-0274, USA. E-mail:


Vocal plasticity in the face of changing social context is well-documented in passerine birds, but the degree to which changes in social environment affect the vocal structure of non-human primates is a topic which has remained largely unexplored. We assessed whether modification of social environments, in this case the presence of marmosets in neighboring cages, influenced the vocal morphology of phee calls, which possess ‘signature’-like features, in Wied's black tufted-ear marmosets (Callithrix kuhlii). Individual phee calls were obtained over a period of 8 wk from 11 animals maintained in rooms with stable social environments. After this baseline phase, seven marmosets were housed for an additional 8 wk in rooms that contained cages with unfamiliar marmosets, while four marmosets maintained the same neighbors as the first phase. Calls were digitized and both frequency and temporal parameters were measured. Multivariate discriminant function analyses (DFA) generated from vocalizations collected in the first phase produced functions that accurately classified calls to the correct individual, showing that calls had significant individual distinctiveness. DFAs generated from vocalizations in the first phase of the study continued to show high classification accuracy for marmosets in a stable social environment, but DFAs from the first phase were significantly less likely to correctly classify vocalizations in marmosets that were housed next to novel conspecifics. These data show that phee calls, which have signature-like properties in marmosets, can be modified by changes in social context. The results suggest a degree of plasticity in vocal signals that is rare among non-human primates.