Monkeys Use "Sentences," Study Suggests

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
May 17, 2006
Putty-nosed monkeys put two different alarm calls together to create urgent warnings, according to observations recently made of the West African primates.

These monkey "sentences" appear to be evidence of what is widely considered to be a uniquely human ability: stringing words together to convey a message, or syntax.

"These monkeys combine different calls into more complex call sequences with novel meanings," said Klaus Zuberbühler, a psychology researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Zuberbühler co-wrote a study about the monkey calls appearing in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.

He and co-author Kate Arnold do not make a direct analogy between the monkeys' call sequences and human language. (Read related news: "Monkeys Deaf to Complex Communication, Study Says" [2004].)

But Zuberbühler said that their work shows that "the main carriers of meaning are not the individual calls, but the call sequence."

Monkey "Sentence"

Putty-nosed monkeys belong to a group of African monkeys called guenons. The species' most obvious distinguishing feature, and the one the animals are named for, is a bright white nose that stands out against a brown face.

The monkeys are found throughout the Ivory Coast (map of the Côte D'Ivoire), in parts of Liberia, and along the entire northwest coast of the Congo River.

Groups consisting of a single male accompanying 12 to 30 females and their offspring defend territories within this range.

Like other guenons, putty-nosed monkeys use two loud calls, usually referred to as "pyows" and "hacks." They use a series of pyows to warn of a leopard threatening the group and a string of hacks to indicate the presence of crowned eagles.

Zuberbühler and Arnold found that male monkeys often combine the two calls into a kind of simple sentence that they call a "pyow-hack."

To find out what the pyow-hack might mean, the researchers played recorded leopard growls to 17 different putty-nosed monkey groups in Nigeria's Gashaka Gumti National Park.

In nine of the groups, the males produced at least one pyow-hack sequence. In the eight others, the males made single-call series only. In response, some of the groups moved to evade the supposed predator.

After waiting 20 minutes, the scientists played a recorded series of monkey calls indicating the presence of crowned eagles. This elicited the hack call from all 17 males.

Putty-nosed monkeys avoid moving when threatened by an eagle—movement through the canopy would cause them to be more obvious to the winged predator.

With the monkeys no longer on the move, the scientists were able to re-locate the groups using global positioning equipment.

They found that the nine groups that produced the pyow-hack sequence had moved significantly farther than those that produced other call series.

The pyow-hack series, the researchers conclude, has a different meaning from the other calls, and "move farther and faster" might be a possible translation.

Interesting Proposition

Based on the finding, the scientists say that combining calls seems to increase the variety of messages that monkeys can communicate. But does this mean the monkeys are actually putting together a kind of language?

Not quite, says Edward Wasserman, professor of psychology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

But he called the results "interesting initial observations of differential responding by putty-nosed monkeys to two distinctive vocal calls emitted together."

He suggests that the researchers figure out whether the reverse call—a "hack-pyow"—has a different meaning.

"[That would] strengthen the case that these monkeys exhibit a primitive form of syntax," he said.

Michael A. Huffman, associate professor of ecology at Kyoto University in Japan, questioned whether the pyow-hack call is actually an invention that creates a new message or simply another innate call.

"Further research would help pin this down," he said. "But at present this work stands as an interesting proposition."

Zuberbühler cautions that analogies to human language are not always helpful in understanding the utterances of animals.

But he does see a parallel in the fact that, like humans, the monkeys appear to be assembling a finite number of sounds to create new and different meaningful combinations.

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).


© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.