Monkeys match expression and sound

June 26, 2003

Monkeys seem able to link certain sounds with specific facial expressions, according to a Brief Communication in the June 26, 2003 Nature. The skill might represent an evolutionary precursor to the ability of humans to match spoken words with facial gesticulations.

The rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) communicates by means of elaborate facial and vocal patterns. Friendly ‘coo’ calls and antagonistic ‘threat’ calls, for example, are accompanied by two distinct facial expressions. Asif A. Ghazanfar and Nikos K. Logothetis played monkeys two side-by-side silent videos of the same animal making the two distinct ‘faces.’ The sound of one call was played separately. The canny subjects were able to combine visual and auditory cues, and spent more time looking at the monkey whose face matched the sound.

The research hints that different rhesus monkeys interpret different facial expressions in the same way. Young children, who have not yet learned to talk, respond to an analogous human-based task in a similar way. This suggests that our ability to match a particular facial expression with certain words may have evolved from our primate ancestors.

“Facial expressions linked to monkey calls,” Asif A. Ghazanfar, Nikos K. Logothetis, Nature, June 26, 2003 Abstract © 2003 Nature
Asif A. Ghazanfar, Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, Tübingen, Germany