Vocal expression of emotional arousal across two call types in young rhesus macaques

Anim Behav. 2022 Aug:190:125-138. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2022.05.017. Epub 2022 Jul 5.


As Darwin first recognized, the study of emotional communication has the potential to improve scientific understanding of the mechanisms of signal production as well as how signals evolve. We examined the relationships between emotional arousal and selected acoustic characteristics of coo and scream vocalizations produced by female rhesus macaques, Macaca mulatta, during development. For coos, arousal was assessed through measures of stress-induced elevations of plasma cortisol exhibited in response to the human intruder test. In the analysis of screams, arousal was evaluated from the intensity of aggression experienced by the vocalizer during natural social interactions. Both call types showed a positive relationship between arousal and overall fundamental frequency (F0, perceived as pitch in humans). In coos, this association was dampened over development from infancy (6 months) to the juvenile, prepubertal period (16 months) and further to menarche (21.3-31.3 months), perhaps reflecting developmental changes in physiology, anatomy and/or call function. Heightened arousal was also associated in coos with increases in an acoustic dimension related to F0 modulation and noisiness. As monkeys matured, coos showed decreases in overall F0 as well as increased noisiness and F0 modulation, likely reflecting growth of the vocal apparatus and changes in vocal fold oscillation. Within screams, only one acoustic dimension (related to F0 modulation) showed developmental change, and only within one subclass of screams within one behavioural context. Our results regarding the acoustic correlates of arousal in both call types are broadly consistent with findings in other species, supporting the hypothesis of evolutionary continuity in emotion expression. We discuss implications for broader theories of how vocal acoustics respond to selection pressures.

Keywords: Macaca mulatta; acoustics; arousal; communication; emotion; expression; primate; vocal.