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Common marmoset

Monkey talk

Common marmoset: better vocalization when babies interact with parents

Luciano Marra / Wikimedia CommonsCommon marmoset: better vocalization when babies interact with parentsLuciano Marra / Wikimedia Commons

It’s hardly news for anyone who has ever watched the development of a human baby: speech first emerges through random and apparently incoherent sounds that gradually become associated with specific things. In the initial months of life, a baby’s interaction with its parents are essential for building up its communication skills – a trait unique among primates. Now, a research team from Princeton University, including Brazilian physician and neuroscientist Daniel Takahashi, has demonstrated that infants of the common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus), native to Brazil, also hone their communication skills through parent-child interactions (Science, August 14, 2015). In the study, the researchers analyzed the vocalizations of 10 infant marmosets from birth until development of communication with adults, at 2 months old. They monitored a specific sound, the “phee”, which resembles a whistle and is used for communication among individuals of this species in a wide range of situations. The “phees”, in this case, were sounds made by the baby monkeys in situations that in which a human baby would cry. The scientists wanted to see if the youngsters’ ability to communicate would evolve from generic cries into more specific vocalizations, as observed in humans. During the tests, the baby marmosets were kept far enough from their parents for them to hear, but not see each other. The researchers verified that the kind of vocalizations made by marmosets changes considerably during the initial period after birth. But they developed faster when they were allowed to interact more with their parents.

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