To borrow from Jonah Lehrer (in turn, giving a nod to Hobbes Hobbes), “baboons are nasty, brutish and short.” They’re noisy little brutes, at that. When they encounter predators, females and juveniles produce harsh single-syllable barks (turn your volume up a little). During baboon-on-baboon fights or dominance contests, the women and children scream. In both situations, males produce two-syllable “wahoos.” All the ruckus doesn’t necessarily make them bad to have around, though. Many animals respond, often appropriately, to alarm calls produced by other species. This, “eavesdropping” behavior has been observed both within taxonomic groups (among birds, marmots and squirrels) and between them (some mammals and reptiles, vervet monkeys, red squirrels, Gunther’s dik-diks, banded mongooses and Galápagos marine iguanas among them, respond to bird calls; hornbills can discriminate among different primate alarm calls). If species that live in proximity to baboons have gotten the hang of telling alarm calls from contest ones and learned to associate alarm calls with predators, they might avoid becoming lunch thanks to their noisy neighbors.
On the Okavango Delta in northwestern Botswana, impala, tsessebe, zebra and wildebeest are all abundant, all hear baboon calls often and all respond to the baboons’ alarm calls. Although all four ungulates come into contact with baboons, only impala regularly intermingle with the apes at close range, likely because of their overlapping diet and habitat preferences. Baboons and impala also share a vulnerability to predation by leopards and lions, while the larger ungulates only have to worry about the lions. Impala, therefore, are more likely to experience a close juxtaposition of baboon alarm calls and appearance of predators and have more opportunity to associate the two.
To test what seems like the impala’s edge over the other species, Dawn Kitchen, James R. Nicholson (Ohio State University), Thore Bergman (University of Michigan), Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth (University of Pennsylvania) broadcasted four unique pairs of baboon call sequences – each pair consisted of one sequence of alarm calls recorded during a lion encounter and one sequence of calls recorded during a male-male altercation that involved the chasing of females and juveniles – in the presence of groups of the four ungulate species. All four species showed stronger responses (responses measured were latency to orient toward the speaker, duration of looking toward the speaker, latency to move at least 1 m and rate of moving) to the alarm call sequences than to the contest sequences (even though both sequence types were similar in pattern, amplitude and duration). The impala, though, had stronger response scores than all other species combined in both the alarm and contest conditions and demonstrated the strongest discrimination between the two call sequence types. Specifically, the impala observed showed shorter latencies to orient toward the speaker, looked toward the speaker for a longer duration, began moving sooner, and moved at faster rates after the playback of alarm calls than contest calls.
Do these ungulates possess an innate skill for telling the difference between baboon alarm calls and other calls, or do they learn, over time, to separate the signal from the noise? Were the ability innate in any of the species, the researchers say, it could be explained by an acoustic convergence between baboon alarm calls and the alarm calls of the ungulates. However, their alarm calls are made up primarily of snorts that have little in common with the baboons’ barks and wahoos. Instead of natural talent, the researchers think the ungulates learn to discriminate between baboon calls, given the impala’s strong response difference to the two baboon call sequences, the species exposure to baboons and available opportunity to associate alarm calls with danger. The researchers suggest that the ungulates’ responses were guided primarily by the alarm calls of the females and juveniles, which are easier to differentiate from other calls than the males’ alarm and contest wahoos (although, female baboons can differentiate male calls and there is some evidence that birds can parse the subtle differences, humans can’t discriminate the calls by ear). Familiarity and social learning have been implicated as mechanisms for interspecies call recognition in other research. Juvenile vervet monkeys residing in groups that regularly hear the alarm calls of superb starlings responded appropriately to playback of starling calls at a younger age than juvenile vervets living in groups with lower rates of exposure. To further test their hypothesis, Kitchen and her co-authors suggest a similar series of playback tests conducted on young ungulates with varying levels of exposure to baboons and their vocalizations.
Reference: Kitchen DM, Bergman TJ, Cheney DL, Nicholson JR, & Seyfarth RM (2010). Comparing responses of four ungulate species to playbacks of baboon alarm calls. Animal cognition PMID: 20607576
Image: “Chacma Baboon – Papio ursinus” by Flickr user Arno & Louise Wildlife