Monkey Whispering: Cotton-top Tamarin Lower Voices When Afraid

Image: Monkey Whispering: Cotton-top Tamarin Lower Voices When Afraid

Thursday, 26 Sep 2013 05:16 PM

By David Ogul

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A small, fluffy monkey known as the cotton-top tamarin can communicate by whispering when it believes it is in danger, according to a pair of researchers who recorded the creatures at New York’s Central Park Zoo.

The finding by researchers Rachel Morrison and Diana Reiss of The City University of New York were published in the latest issue of the journal Zoo Biology.

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The researchers concluded that the whispering “appears to be due to vocal control in response to the potential threat and not attributable to other factors.” They further found that “whisper-like behavior may be a more widespread phenomenon than previously thought, but due to its inherent subtlety it has eluded prior detection."

As explained: “The discovery was made ... during an experiment designed to capture alarm calls that the tamarins reportedly make when afraid of people. But instead of making the calls when a worker they feared stepped inside their enclosure, the tamarins seemed to fall silent. … Only when the scientists analyzed spectrograms (graphical representations of the sounds) did they realize the tamarins were whispering their calls instead of shouting them.”

Zoos across the country were weighing in on the findings via Twitter, urging visitors to have a listen to their tamarins. And commenters were poking fun at the discovery.

Easy. Cotton-top tamarins whisper so they can ride on your shoulder and hiss secrets and criticisms into your ear.

— Ali Davis (@Ali_Davis) September 25, 2013

Cotton-top tamarins do something I never did at sleepovers:

— Julie Hecht (@DogSpies) September 24, 2013

The researchers said their findings provide “the first evidence for whisper-like behavior in a non-human primate.”

But they are not the first animals that have been found to whisper for more effective communication. “Previous studies have reported that other species reduce the amplitude of their signals in specific contexts,” Morrison and Reiss wrote. “The use of ‘whisper,’ ‘quiet,’ or ‘soft’ song has been documented in many species of songbirds in the contexts of mating and territorial defense,” for example.

Cotton-top tamarins are native to Colombia and were once captured and exported for biomedical research. Destruction of lowland forests in northwestern Colombia has significantly reduced its habitat, and the species is classified as critically endangered. It’s estimated only 6,000 or so remain in the wild.

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