Heterospecific recognition of referential alarm calls in two species of lemur

Ben Walton & Arik Kershenbaum (2019). Heterospecific recognition of referential alarm calls in two species of lemur. Bioacoustics, Volume 28 (6): 592 -603

Alarm vocalizations are a common feature of the mammalian antipredator response. The meaning and function of these calls vary between species, with some species using calls to reference-specific categories of predators. Species can also use more than just the calls of conspecifics to detect threat, ‘eavesdropping’ on other species’ signalling to avoid predation. However, the evidence to date for both referential signalling and eavesdropping within primates is limited. We investigated two sympatric populations of wild lemur, the Coquerel’s sifaka Propithecus coquereli and the common brown lemur Eulemur fulvus, presenting them with playbacks of predator calls, conspecific alarm calls and heterospecific lemur alarm calls, and recorded their behavioural responses following the playbacks. Results suggest that the Coquerel’s sifaka may have functionally referential alarm calls with high specificity for aerial predators, but there was no evidence for any referential nature of the other call investigated. Brown lemurs appear to have a mixed alarm system, with one call being specific with respect to aerial predators. The other call investigated appeared to reference terrestrial predators. However, it was also used in other contexts, so does not meet the criteria for functional reference. Both species showed evidence for heterospecific alarm call recognition, with both the Coquerel’s sifaka and the brown lemurs responding appropriately to heterospecific aerial alarm calls.


Eavesdropping, functionally referential signals, interspecific communication, primate communication