Non-Human Primate Communication
Odors, vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions are used by non-human primates to inform others of their psychological state and present concerns, which is an important clue to what they are likely to do next. In the picture on the left, the outstretched hand and pleading facial expression directed toward another group member are obvious indications of this chimpanzee’s appeal for sharing. It also probably reflects and reinforces his or her lower position on the dominance hierarchy within the community.
Primatologists have observed that some communication patterns are commonly used by many primate species. These are discussed below.
Prosimians have excellent olfactory sensing abilities. It is not surprising, therefore, that they usually use body odors to communicate. Adult male ring-tailed lemurs regularly mark their woodland territories with chemicals produced by scent glands in their wrists. This is similar to dogs, wolves, and cats marking their territories with urine. In both cases, the scent is recognized as a personal signature. Tamarins and marmosets also use scented urine to mark the gum trees that are important food sources in their territories. In all of these species, scent marking is a way of claiming territory and warning off intruders.
Using scent to communicate is not unique to prosimians. All primates, including humans, do so to some extent. People do not mark territory with scent or battle each other with it, but we do produce odors that may attract or repulse others. Think about the effect you might have on your friends if you did not bathe or shower for several days. Humans have learned to cover up body odors with perfumes and other products. Our cultures tell us that some of these odors are attractive. However, our bodies also produce pheromones, which are chemicals that give off powerful, often subliminal, odors that have effects on the physiology and behavior of others in our species whether they are aware of it or not. Very importantly, there are different male and female pheromones that play a part in sexual attraction and ovulation regulation. It is likely that all primates produce such pheromones.
Q. When researching out in the field do you ever experience a higher volume of activity when you are accompanied by a female ?
* This has been reported in many cases, especially experiencing close vocalizations, and/or Tree knocks.
Most primate species, including humans, use threatening gestures, stares, and poses to intimidate others. Primatologists refer to this particular use of body language as agonistic displays .
Among non-human primates, they are usually sufficient to prevent physical fighting. In fact, physically violent encounters are rare among them. The dominant male in a monkey or ape community can usually prevent major conflicts and keep order by the use of often subtle agonistic displays. For instance, male baboons flash their eyelids when they are angry and want to intimidate others. If this isn’t sufficient in its effect, they open their mouths widely in a manner that looks like human yawning. This is usually the last warning before attacking. Since the marmosets and tamarins cannot significantly change their facial expressions, their agonistic displays are different. Adult males chirp repeatedly and turn around to show their genitals from behind. This is the ultimate threat for them.
Most primate species communicate affection and reduce group tension by what are known as affiliative behaviors. These include calmly sitting close to each other, touching, and mutually grooming. The latter is referred to as allogrooming in contrast to self or autogrooming .
Allogrooming is a powerful tool for communication. It is used by both monkeys and apes to reinforce male-female mate bonds as well as same sex friendship bonds. Chimpanzees often have ecstatic bouts of allogrooming that go on for hours when an old acquaintance rejoins the community. They also do it to calm emotions following wild, aggressive outbursts by angry adult males. Most members of the community also seem to very much enjoy grooming infants and may compete for the opportunity.
Allogrooming usually has measureable physiological effects on both the individual being groomed and the one doing the grooming. It can cause the release of endorphins into the blood. These are hormones that have opiate-like effects on the body–they reduce the sensation of pain and cause a pleasant emotional state.
It is clear that allogrooming results in both social and psychological benefits for non-human primates. It often serves much the same purposes for humans, whether it be in the private setting of a family at home, where a parent might brush a child’s hair, or in a public barbershop or beauty salon. The experience of having someone run their fingers through your hair and massage your head in the process is usually physically pleasurable, and it generally provides a period of time removed from work or school concerns when relaxed, casual conversation occurs.
Among some species of primates, including humans, the urge to allogroom is so strong as to result in grooming animals of other species. Among non-human primates, inter-species allogrooming sometimes occurs when they are in captivity and deprived of the opportunity to groom their own kind. They are even known to groom people. However, it does not seem to be a pattern of wild non-human primates.
Petting a willing, appreciative dog has been shown in experiments to reduce the blood pressure of humans. This surprising psychological effect potentially has medical implications.
Hope this bit of knowledge helps you understand a little more about our primate behaviors and communications.
* Feel free to ask the ECBRO more about primates.
We are continuing our studies with our known primates to better assist our work in the field.
Daniel J. Benoit (Founder)