We studied the vocal communication of monkeys using a drone

However, communicating with a co-author at a remote field site can be a challenge

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Last year our paper on conserved alarm calls and rapid auditory learning in West African green monkeys (Chlorocebus sabaeus) was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. We found that the monkeys’ alarm calls to drones resemble alarm calls that East African vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) give towards naturally occurring aerial predators. We concluded that the structure of alarms calls in the genus is largely hard-wired. At the same time, the monkeys auditory learning abilities were fast and apparently open-ended: using playback experiments we found that the monkeys learned to associate the drone noise to the drone after only one presentation (find a video of a playback experiment here). The “Behind the Paper” post written by Julia Fischer, one of the two last authors of the study, can be found here.

Green monkeys, our study species [Photocredit: Franziska Wegdell, Centre de Recherche de Primatologie Simenti]

So, what happened after our paper was published? The paper received quite some attention, also in major news outlets (https://www.altmetric.com/details/61167524/news). It was my first publication – so how did I feel when it came out and created such a hubbub? The truth is: I did not even know about it. I was deep in the Congo basin studying bonobos (Pan paniscus) at the remote Kokolopori field site. Our basic radio system was unreliable at the time and communication with anyone outside the forest not easy. Also the message that our paper had been accepted travelled very slowly into the forest. When I finally received the good news, I celebrated by opening one of the rare cookie packets.

I celebrated the published paper by observing these party animals, bonobos. [Photocredit: Franziska Wegdell, Kokolopori Research Project]

After my stay in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I started a PhD on vocal communication with Simon Townsend at the Comparative Communication and Cognition Group within the University of Zürich. I am continuing my research by studying the possible mechanisms for comprehension learning (my study species changed, though, to bonobos). More precisely, I study the influence of the surrounding vocal environment on the ontogeny of bonobo communication. By using observational and experimental approaches we hope to improve our knowledge of the ontogeny of bonobo vocal production and the mechanisms of comprehension learning. This, too, will be a comparative study, as we will compare our data on bonobos with chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and human infants. What helped me to get here was the paper this post is about, our “drone study” that had started as a side project when I collected data for my Master’s thesis on grunts of Guinea baboons. During these projects, I acquired the necessary methods and skills, being supervised by incredible mentors and the senior authors of this study, Julia Fischer and Kurt Hammerschmidt.

Franziska Wegdell

PhD student, University of Zurich, Comparative Communication and Cognition Group

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