Conceptual Semantics in a Nonhuman Primate

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Some animal vocalizations have been described as referential, or semantic, because individuals respond to them as if they designate some object or event. Alternatively, subjects may simply attend to the acoustic features of calls rather than their meanings. Field playback experiments on diana monkeys (Cercopithecus diana diana) tested these hypotheses using the calls of leopards and eagles and the males' alarm calls to these predators. In the experiment, 2 calls were played in sequence, separated by 5 min of silence, such that they were either (a) similar in acoustic and semantic features, (b) similar in semantic features only, or (c) different in both acoustic and semantic features. Subjects readily transferred habituation across acoustic but not semantic features, suggesting that they attended to the calls' underlying meanings.

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