International Journal of Primatology

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 346-361

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Variation in the Meaning of Alarm Calls in Verreaux’s and Coquerel’s Sifakas (Propithecus verreauxi, P. coquereli)

  • Claudia FichtelAffiliated withBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology Unit, German Primate Center Email author 
  • , Peter M. KappelerAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology/Sociobiology, Georg-August University Göttingen


The comprehension and usage of primate alarm calls appear to be influenced by social learning. Thus, alarm calls provide flexible behavioral mechanisms that may allow animals to develop appropriate responses to locally present predators. To study this potential flexibility, we compared the usage and function of 3 alarm calls common to 2 closely related sifaka species (Propithecus verreauxi and P. coquereli), in each of 2 different populations with different sets of predators. Playback studies revealed that both species in both of their respective populations emitted roaring barks in response to raptors, and playbacks of this call elicited a specific anti-raptor response (look up and climb down). However, in Verreaux’s sifakas, tchi-faks elicited anti-terrestrial predator responses (look down, climb up) in the population with a higher potential predation threat by terrestrial predators, whereas tchi-faks in the other population were associated with nonspecific flight responses. In both populations of Coquerel’s sifakas, tchi-fak playbacks elicited anti-terrestrial predator responses. More strikingly, Verreaux’s sifakas exhibited anti-terrestrial predator responses after playbacks of growls in the population with a higher threat of predation by terrestrial predators, whereas Coquerel’s sifakas in the raptor-dominated habitat seemed to associate growls with a threat by raptors; the 2 other populations of each species associated a mild disturbance with growls. We interpret this differential comprehension and usage of alarm calls as the result of social learning processes that caused changes in signal content in response to changes in the set of predators to which these populations have been exposed since they last shared a common ancestor.


Alarm calls Lemurs Propithecus Social learning Traditions