Functional flexibility in bonobo vocal calls – Author Interview

We recently published “Functional flexibility in wild bonobo vocal behaviour”. In this study, author Zanna Clay, and her colleagues examined the results of a study on the vocalizations of wild bonobos.

Zanna comments on her research and experience publishing with us.

PJ: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

ZC: I am a Marie Curie Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Birmingham, UK and have recently moved from working at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland. I have a background in Psychology and Zoology and I am in interested in using the comparative approach to study the evolution of language and cognition. Using insights from our closest living relatives, the great apes, we can look at the similarities and differences between us and our ape relatives to make estimations about the capacities of our last common ancestor. I study bonobos, our closest living relatives along with chimpanzees. Despite being so closely related to us, they are still very little understood.


PJ: Can you briefly explain the research you published in PeerJ?

ZC: We examined vocal flexibility in wild bonobos and how it relates to human vocal flexibility. Our research was inspired from research showing that human infants, even before language develops, are capable of producing vocalisations flexibly and independently of context and emotional state. This type of flexibility, known as functional flexibility, is a hallmark of human speech and it has been suggested by some to be uniquely human. However, we felt this conclusion was premature considering that not enough comparative research on the question was currently available. We addressed this by examining evidence for functional flexibility in the vocal behaviour of wild bonobos. We found that wild bonobos produce high-pitched vocalisations, called ‘peeps’, in flexible ways across different contexts and emotion states. The research suggests an intermediate stage between fixed signals of primates and functionally flexible signals seen in humans.

Zanna Clay_project photo 1


PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about this research?

ZC: Wild bonobos produce peep vocalisations in just about every context — It’s quite staggering. They peep when they’re eating; they peep when they’re resting; they peep when they’re preparing nests, after fights, when travelling, and the list goes on and on. I think if we can crack the mystery of the peep, we can understand a lot about communication in this species!

PJ: What surprised you the most with these results?

ZC: We expected to find more variation in the acoustic structure of peeps across contexts. We found it interesting that there was acoustic discrimination of peeps produced in negative contexts, which may be related to high levels of arousal influencing call structure.

Zanna Clay_bonobo photo 1


PJ: What kinds of lessons do you hope the public takes away from the research?

ZC: More research needs to be done on our great ape relatives before we can make conclusions about human uniqueness. Evolution is based on the principal of continuity and the more we look, the more continuity we find among animals and humans

PJ: Where do you hope to go from here?

ZC: We hope to delve deeper into the communication systems of bonobos to work out how language evolved.

Zanna Clay_bonobo photo 2

PJ: If you had unlimited resources (money, lab equipment, trained personnel, participants, etc.), what study would you run?

ZC: I would run more comparative studies across field sites on wild great apes –especially bonobos — we still know so little! I’m interested in developing good collaborations with Zoos and centers to better develop research facilities to make research fun and engaging for the animals, and interesting for members of the public to observe. I’m also interested in developing more non-invasive ways to better understand animal neural and cognitive processing, especially in apes, as it would be really insightful for our understanding of human evolution.

PJ: How did you first hear about PeerJ, and what persuaded you to submit to us?

ZC: We were recommended to try PeerJ by colleagues.

PJ: Do you have any anecdotes about your overall experience with us? Anything surprising?

ZC: It’s been very smooth, with excellent communications with staff.

PJ: How would you describe your experience of our submission/review process?

ZC: Very smooth.

PJ: Did you get any comments from your colleagues about your publication with PeerJ?

ZC: People are interested in how PeerJ will progress in the future and the path it will take.

PJ: Would you submit again, and would you recommend that your colleagues submit? 

ZC: Yes, we have had a positive experience at PeerJ.

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