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If using a conspicuous signal is adaptive, then other primate species in the same situation should show the same patterns; those species with referential alarm calls should give the more conspicuous one to the predator type using surprise and a less conspicuous, warning signal in response to the predator type not dependent on surprise. This is found in Diana monkeys, which give two different calls in response to their terrestrial predators, chimpanzees and leopards, or eagles (Zuberbühler 1999; Zuberbühler 2000). However, the Diana monkeys give much more conspicuous signals in response to eagles and especially leopards, which are the most dependent on ambush attacks (Zuberbühler et al, 1997).

Alarm calls can vary to a wide degree among primate species, but have evolved to be advantageous. Each type of system, whether it refers to a specific predator or the degree of urgency, is the most adaptive type available in the precise ecological conditions.

Discussion questions

  1. Why are there variations in the types of alarm calls (predator specific, risk specific, etc) that different predators use?
  2. What might be some risks of alarm calling?


  • Alarm calls - These are loud, attention getting calls that indicate the presence of a predator or other threat. They are made by one or more individuals and benefit others, and so have been extensively studied as examples of kin selection and reciprocal altruism.
  • Apes - The apes are in the family Hominidae, which includes the gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans. They are omnivorous, agile tree climbers native to Africa and Asia.
  • Chutter - A rapid, staccato series of notes that sound like “chit.”
  • Clear calls - These are tonal calls audible over about fifty meters. Diana monkeys use clear calls to signal that an area is currently threat free.
  • Conspicuous signal - This is a behavior that seems to communicate directly to a predator to draw its attention but results in a higher survival rate. For example, skylarks sing when chased by predatory merlins.
  • Comparative study - A study in which the characteristics of distinct species facing related ecological situations are compared for similarities and differences. These studies are used to support claims that specific ecological conditions are the reason for the evolution of certain behaviors. For example, multiple species that can employ different anti-predator responses have evolved alarm calls that specify predators by type.
  • Ecological Conditions - The ecological conditions are the sum of the organism’s habitat; these include climate, geology, predators, prey, and any other factors that influence an organism’s fitness.
  • Fitness - An organism’s fitness is its chance that its genes will be successfully passed down to future generations. Relative fitness is usually used because that determines whether an individual’s genes will increase in frequency in the population in future generations. Fitness depends on a variety of factors, including reproductive success and predator avoidance.
  • Functionally referential alarm system - An alarm system where acoustically distinct calls refer to specific predators and lead to specific responses.
  • Monkeys - The monkeys are a very diverse group that may be classified into New (Platyrrhini) or Old (Catarrhini) World monkeys. Monkeys exhibit a great range of characteristics; they may be herbivores or omnivores, and some are arboreal while others live on the savannah.
  • Mutualistic vigilance - Diana monkeys exhibit mutualistic vigilance when foraging out of sight of one another; each watches a different area for predators and lets the others know that the area is safe. All the monkeys benefit because with a smaller area to watch they can use more energy for tasks such as foraging instead of vigilance.


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My name is Samantha Berkey and I am from Sarasota, Florida. I am a sophomore biology major at Rice University and hope to eventually go to graduate school. I’m very interested in doing research, though I haven’t quite decided whether to go into microbiology and medical research or study animal behavior and evolution.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Mockingbird tales: readings in animal behavior. OpenStax CNX. Jan 12, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11211/1.5
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