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Variable specificity in the anti-predator vocalizations and behaviour of the white-faced capuchin, Cebus capucinus

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Much research in animal communication is aimed at understanding the functional design features of animal vocal signals. Our detailed analyses of the vocalizations and behavioural responses elicited in white-faced capuchins by predators and other disturbances point to two call variants that differ modestly in their acoustic structure and that are accompanied by functionally distinct behavioural responses. The first variant is given exclusively to avian predators and is almost invariably accompanied by the monkey's immediate descent from the treetops where it is most vulnerable; therefore, we label this call variant the 'aerial predator alarm'. The second variant, that differs only slightly but noticeably from the first, is given to a wide range of snakes and mammals, including a range of species that represent no predatory threat to the monkeys. This second call is also associated with more variable responses from calling monkeys, from delayed retreat from the source of disturbance, to active approach, inspection, and sometimes mobbing of the animal involved. We therefore label this variant more generally as an 'alerting call'. Although some other primate species show a more diverse system of anti-predator calls, and the capuchins themselves may yet be found to produce a greater variety of calls, a system of two call variants with varying degrees of predator specificity and behavioural response is not uncommon among primates and appears functionally appropriate for capuchins. The basic structure of the alerting call allows conspecific listeners to localize the caller and the source of disturbance readily, thereby allowing listeners to approach and assist in mobbing in cases where the disturbance warrants it, or to avoid the area in cases where the disturbance is identified as a predatory threat. Conversely, the aerial predator alarm is inherently less localizable and therefore conveys the presence of a predator to conspecific listeners nearby while allowing the signaler itself to remain relatively inconspicuous.

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