You are standing near the edge of a gargantuan cliff in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia looking out over an expanse of mountains and valleys. Behind you, you hear noises that sound like people talking. You spin around and there isn’t a human in sight – just several huddles of gelada monkeys murmuring soft melodious phrases to one another.
There is enormous interest in understanding the origins of human language through comparison with closely related animals like non-human primates. Yet, there are few primate species that communicate in a manner even remotely as complex as humans. Gelada monkeys are an exception. Geladas often ‘talk’ to each other with strikingly complex sequences of vocalizations, or melodies, but the function of these melodies is a mystery.
In the scientific literature, there is controversy about whether language developed as a means to communicate information or to strengthen social ties with family and friends. Our team seeks to unearth the function of gelada monkey melodies by recording the contexts in which these melodies are made and observe what the monkeys do when we play individual monkeys’ complex vocalizations (from a hidden speaker) in different social situations. This knowledge will, in turn, tell us about the potential social and ecological factors that drove complex communication in primates, including our own first steps towards language.
Studying gelada monkey communication is important both for a scientific arena and for the conservation of the Ethiopian Simien Mountains.
Our study will contribute to the scientific arena by challenging currently held beliefs about the origins of human language. Did we begin using language as a tool to trade specific information with social partners? Or, did language arise purely as a way to maintain our relationships with several individuals? Similar to humans, gelada monkeys live in enormously large social groups of up to 1000 individuals. Through understanding of the limits and capabilities of complex communication in our closely related primate cousins, we can begin to understand the social factors that created the conditions for language acquisition.
Second, the Simien Mountains National Park where we will work is home to several rare animal species found nowhere else in the world – these species include the Walia ibex (a type of wild goat), the Ethiopian wolf, and the gelada monkey. The Simien Mountains are listed as an “in danger” World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Our research will help to raise public knowledge of the natural treasures found only in this mountainous landscape before it is too late.
Photos (above) by Clay Wilton and David Pappano
Two things are most critical to carrying out research in the Simien Mountains National Park – the support of local people and a working vehicle. Through other projects completed by our research team, we have been able to provide stable income to local farmers and shepherd kids while simultaneously teaching them research and management skills that are useful in obtaining rare positions as Park Guides. Therefore, your money can help support one or more of our Ethiopian research assistants. For $25, you can help us fund the income of one local field assistant for 1 week.
Our field truck, which takes us back and forth from the monkeys to our camp and to the nearest town for food and other supplies, is the most valuable piece of equipment we own and we need funds to help us buy fuel and maintain our truck when it breaks down, which happens often in the field. For $50, your money can fund us to travel from our campsite to the area in which the monkeys live for 1 full week of data collection. Your money will also help to fund other necessities of fieldwork in the Simien Mountains, such as purchase of a yearly research permit ($1000) and international and Ethiopian domestic airfare to the field site from the United States ($2600 per trip).
With our data on gelada monkeys from the Simien Mountains, we will be able to identify potential forces that drove our first human ability to speak language. If the gelada monkeys use these complex “melodies" to communicate information, such as individual identity, then there is support that language first originated as a tool to trade information. If the gelada monkeys use these complex melodies to ‘soothe’ friends in times of stress, then this result would suggest the first steps towards language were rooted in our human need to sustain our friendships.
Morgan Gustison, the lead investigator of this project, is a beginning doctoral graduate student in the Psychology Department at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. Morgan has been studying the vocal communication of gelada monkeys since June, 2011. In a recent article that she published with her collaborators at the University of Michigan, she showed that gelada monkeys produce a number of vocalizations that are unique in comparison to closely related baboon species. These unique vocalizations are combined together into “melodies”. Yet, the function of these unique melodies is still unknown, thus inspiring Morgan to pursue this puzzle as part of her doctorate dissertation research.
Also, Morgan is a member of the University of Michigan Gelada Research Project, a team of researchers that have studied the behavior and physiology of Ethiopian gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains since 2005. Morgan’s research will add to current library of data on gelada monkeys so that future researchers can benefit from her work.
Additional information: http://www.umich.edu/~gelada/UMGRP/Home.html
Hi folks - Great news! I just found out that I received a 'Young Explorer's Grant' from National Geographic Society to cover part of the project costs. I'm able to reduce the funding goal to $4,200, so we're nearly halfway there!
Thank you to everyone who has backed this project so far!