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Functionally Referential Alarm Calls in Tamarins (Saguinus fuscicollis and Saguinus mystax) – Evidence from Playback Experiments


Kurt Hammerschmidt, Cognitive Ethology, German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, 37077 Göttingen, Germany.


Studies on primate vocalisation have revealed different types of alarm call systems ranging from graded signals based on response urgency to functionally referential alarm calls that elicit predator-specific reactions. In addition, alarm call systems that include both highly specific and other more unspecific calls have been reported. There has been consistent discussion on the possible factors leading to the evolution of different alarm call systems, among which is the need of qualitatively different escape strategies. We studied the alarm calls of free-ranging saddleback and moustached tamarins (Saguinus fuscicollis and Saguinus mystax) in northeast Peru. Both species have predator-specific alarm calls and show specific non-vocal reactions. In response to aerial predators, they look upwards and quickly move downwards, while in response to terrestrial predators, they look downwards and sometimes approach the predator. We conducted playback experiments to test if the predator-specific reactions could be elicited in the absence of the predator by the tamarins’ alarm calls alone. We found that in response to aerial alarm call playbacks the subjects looked significantly longer upwards, and in response to terrestrial alarm call playbacks they looked significantly longer downwards. Thus, the tamarins reacted as if external referents, i.e. information about the predator type or the appropriate reaction, were encoded in the acoustic features of the calls. In addition, we found no differences in the responses of S. fuscicollis and S. mystax whether the alarm call stimulus was produced by a conspecific or a heterospecific caller. Furthermore, it seems that S. fuscicollis terrestrial alarm calls were less specific than either S. mystax terrestrial predator alarms or either species’ aerial predator alarms, but because of the small sample size it is difficult to draw a final conclusion.