Vocalizing in chimpanzees is influenced by social-cognitive processes

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Science Advances  15 Nov 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 11, e1701742
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701742

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Adjusting communication to take into account information available to one’s audience is routine in humans but is assumed absent in other animals, representing a recent development on the lineage leading to humans. This assumption may be premature. Recent studies show changes in primate alarm signaling to threats according to the receivers’ risk. However, a classic problem in these and other perspective-taking studies is discerning whether signalers understand the receivers’ mental states or simply are responding to their behavior. We designed experiments to exclude concurrent reading of the receivers’ behavior by simulating receivers using prerecorded calls of other group members. Specifically, we tested whether wild chimpanzees emitted differing signals in response to a snake model when simulated receivers previously emitted either snake-related calls (indicating knowledge) or acoustically similar non–snake-related calls (indicating ignorance). Signalers showed more vocal and nonvocal signaling and receiver-directed monitoring when simulated receivers had emitted non–snake-related calls. Results were not explained by signaler arousal nor by receiver identity. We conclude that chimpanzees are aware enough of another’s perspective to target information toward ignorant group members, suggesting that the integration of signaling and social cognition systems was already emerging in early hominoid lineages before the advent of more language-specific features, such as syntax.

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