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To protect themselves, lemurs learn alarm calls of other species

Solitary lemurs in Madagascar rely on the alarm calls of birds and more social lemurs to evade predators, reports a study published in PLoS ONE.

Researchers from Bristol University, Bristol Zoo and Torino University documented the response of the little-known nocturnal Sahamalaza sportive lemur (Lepilemur sahamalazensis) to the alarm calls of various animals that share its forest home and face similar threats from predators, including raptors, boa constrictors, the puma-like fossa, and people. They found the sportive lemur, which leads a solitary existence and spends daylight hours largely exposed, recognizes the specific warning calls of the crested coua, the Madagascar magpie-robin, and the blue-eyed black lemur.

A closely related sportive lemur in Madagascar

“The vigilance of sportive lemurs significantly increased after they heard playbacks of the alarm calls of the crested coua and the Madagascar magpie-robin,” explained a statement from the University of Bristol. “They also responded with increased vigilance to the aerial alarm calls of the blue-eyed black lemur, scanning towards the sky but never the ground which suggests they classified the alarm call correctly.” The blue-eyed black lemur has a specific call for threats from airborne predators like the Madagascar harrier hawk.

The authors say it is the first time the ability to differentiate between the alarm calls of other species has been documented in a lemur.

“Our results indicate that the Sahamalaza sportive lemur is capable of gleaning information on predator presence and predator type from the referential signals of different surrounding species,” said Marc Holderied of the University of Bristol in a statement. “Examples for cross-species semantics in lemurs are rare, and this is the first record of lemurs using information across vertebrate classes.”

The behavior is likely not unique to the Sahamalaza sportive lemur. There are more that 20 species of sportive lemurs on the island of Madagascar. Most are similar in appearance and behavior.

CITATION: Melanie Seiler, Christoph Schwitzer, Marco Gamba and Marc Holderied. Interspecific semantic alarm call recognition in the solitary Sahamalaza sportive lemur, Lepilemur sahamalazensis. PLoS ONE, July 2012.

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