Tamarins change their accent to avoid conflict

Tamarins change their accent to avoid conflict with other monkeys, this new study shows

A new study finds that tamarins use the "accent" of another monkey species when they enter its territory to help them avoid conflict.

New research has discovered that tamarins will use the “accent” of another species when they enter its territory to help them better understand one another and potentially avoid conflict.

Published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, the study is the first to show “asymmetric call convergence” in primates, meaning that one species chooses to adopt another species’ call patterns to communicate.

Adopting the calls of competing tamarins

The study, co-authored by Jacob Dunn of Anglia Ruskin University, investigated the behaviour of 15 groups of pied tamarins (Saguinus bicolor) and red-handed tamarins (Saguinus midas) in the Brazilian Amazon.

Pied tamarins are critically endangered and have one of the smallest ranges of any primate in the world, much of it around the city of Manaus, while red-handed tamarins are found throughout the north-eastern Amazon region.

The researchers found that when groups of red-handed tamarins entered territory shared with pied tamarins, the red-handed tamarins adopted the long calls used by the pied tamarins.

Avoiding territorial disputes

Red-handed tamarins have greater vocal flexibility, and use calls more often than pied tamarins. The scientists believe they might alter their calls to avoid territorial disputes over resources.

“When groups of tamarins are moving quickly around mature Amazonian forest, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the species apart,” said lead author Tainara Sobroza, of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia. “But during our research, we were surprised to discover they also sound the same in the areas of the forest they cohabit.”

They found that only the red-handed tamarins change their calls to those of the pied tamarins, and this only happens in places where they occur together. Why their calls converge in this way is not certain, but it is possibly to help with identification when defending territory or competing over resources.”

Monkey calls and evolutionary patterns

Scientists have long known that when closely related species overlap in their geographic ranges, interesting evolutionary patterns will emerge, said co-author Jacob Dunn. One famous example is the Galapagos finches, studied by Darwin, whose beaks evolved to specialise on different foods on the islands to avoid competition.

“In some cases, rather than diverging to become more different from one another, some closely related species converge to show similar traits,” Dunn said. This study is the first to show asymmetric call convergence in primates, with one species’ call becoming the lingua franca in shared territories.

“Because these tamarin species rely on similar resources, changing their ‘accents’ in this way is likely to help these tiny primates identify one another more easily in dense forest and potentially avoid conflict,” he said.

Study: “Convergent character displacement in sympatric tamarin calls (Saguinus spp.)”
Authors:
Tainara V. Sobroza, Marcelo Gordo, Pedro A. C. L. Pequeno, Jacob C. Dunn, Wilson R. Spironello, Rafael M. Rabelo, and Adrian P. A. Barnett
Published in:
Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Publication date:
May 3, 2021
DOI:
10.1007/s00265-021-03028-x
Photo: by Brocken Inaglory via Wiki Commons, CC  3.0 Unported

Extra: the tamarin explainer

Image by NickyPe from Pixabay.
Image by NickyPe from Pixabay 

What is a tamarin?

Tamarins are tiny monkeys, in the same family as marmosets. They’re native to Central and South America, where they live in a variety of habitats.

There’s a common myth that they’re “freakishly” quick and agile, which they’re not. But they are incredibly clever and very adaptable, and they rely on their incredible sense of smell and hearing.

There’s also a widespread myth that tamarins are evolutionarily adapted to hanging on to trees. It’s true that they use their claws and teeth to cling to trees and they have really strong grip pads on their hands, but this is less of an evolutionary adaptation than it’s a coincidence that they were genetically predisposed to have these properties.

They can live for up to 10-15 years in captivity.

How do you recognise a tamarin?

The easiest way to tell if you’re looking at a tamarin is that it’s very squat and quite furry. It has very short arms and long toes, like a small anteater. The males have a pronounced bib, which is unusual for a primate. The lips are very thin, and the skin on their faces is hairy. They’re also rather tactile and will rub themselves on you, which is very endearing.

What do tamarins eat?

Tamarins are omnivores, and will eat pretty much anything that’s in season. They’re capable of “chewing” fruit, which is probably why they like it so much. They’re incredibly smart and curious, and will try to feed themselves if you let them. Tamarins are also opportunistic feeders, and will eat flowers, small invertebrates, eggs, small mammals, lizards, frogs, birds and even some snakes.

What do golden lion tamarins eat?

Golden lion tamarins eat just about anything. These omnivores like fruit and flowers, as well as animals such as lizards, frogs, snails, and insects. They also like crickets and spiders, and sweet treats such as nectar and even the occasional bird egg.

Where do golden lion tamarins live?

They live in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian state, that is, not the like-named city (though they like the city, too).  

More learnings about the wonderful tamarin:

  • The New England Primate Conservancy has some great pictures of the many kinds of tamartins that exist in the world.
  • Likewise, Animal Corner also offers a convenient overview of some of the best-known species of tamarins. For example, the White-lipped Tamarin Monkey actually has a red belly, which makes it look like it’s wearing red overalls!
  • Wisconsin’s Racine Zoo has a very helpful fact sheet all about the lovable Emperor Tamarin; did you know that twins are the rule rather than the exception with this species? You do now! The video below explains more about that.