Marmoset Monkeys Take Turns When 'Talking' To Each Other, Like Polite Humans Do In Conversation

By Josh Lieberman on October 17, 2013 4:25 PM EDT

marmoset
Marmosets take turns when vocalizing with one another, something no other non-human primates do, according to a new study. (Photo: Flickr: scarygami)

Marmosets "talk" politely to one another, pausing to let the their conversational partner speak and refraining from vocalizing simultaneously, according to new research. The study found that marmosets engage in this type of communication for as much as 30 minutes, taking turns to speak, similar to the way (decent) humans do. This type of turn-taking vocal communication hasn't been observed in other non-human primates, the researchers say.   

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"We were surprised by how reliably the marmoset monkeys exchanged their vocalizations in a cooperative manner, particularly since in most cases they were doing so with individuals that they were not pair-bonded with," said study co-author Asif Ghazanfar of Princeton University. "This makes what we found much more similar to human conversations and very different from the coordinated calling of animals such as birds, frogs, or crickets, which is linked to mating or territorial defense."

In the study, Ghazanfar and two other researchers put pairs of marmosets in a room with a curtain separating them, so that they could hear but not see one another. As the marmosets called out to one another, each waited about five to six seconds to vocalize after the other had stopped. The marmosets rarely interrupted one another, and their conversation had a rhythm to it; if one marmoset sped up or slowed down their calls, the other responded in kind.

"That's what we do in conversation all the time," Ghazanfar told National Geographic. "If you speak to someone who's speaking fast, you'll start doing it too. We're reporting the same for marmosets."

Like a maiden aunt, the marmosets were even willing to talk to strangers for long stretches of time, and (not so much like an aunt) they were just as polite to marmosets they knew as they were to strangers.

Ghazanfar hopes that his research will help give insight into human communication difficulties, like those experienced by people with Down's syndrome or autism. His next round of marmoset research continues in this vein.   

"We are currently exploring how very early life experiences in marmosets -- including those in the womb and through to parent-infant vocal interactions -- can illuminate what goes awry in human communication disorders," said Ghazanfar.

The study "Coupled Oscillator Dynamics of Vocal Turn-Taking in Monkeys" was published today in Current Biology.

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