Understanding the information conveyed by animal signals requires studies of both production and perception. It is important to determine the relationship between signal morphology and the circumstances of production, the way signaller behavior varies with motivational state and the role of context in mediating responses to signals. Alarm calls are well-suited to research of this type because they are widespread in birds and mammals and typically evoke unambiguous responses. We review studies of alarm calling in primates and ground-dwelling sciurid rodents, concentrating especially on whether these signal systems may be viewed as ‘functionally referential’, that is, as conveying sufficient information about an event for receivers to select appropriate responses. Comparisons of the physical, behavioral and habitat characteristics of these species suggest that incompatibility of the escape responses required to avoid different classes of predators may have been an important factor in the evolution of functionally referential alarm calls.