Rapid acquisition of an alarm response by a neotropical primate to a newly introduced avian predator

Ricardo Gil-da-Costa, Alberto Palleroni, Marc D. Hauser, Janeene Touchton, J. Patrick Kelley


Predation is an important selective pressure in natural ecosystems. Among non–human primates, relatively little is known about how predators hunt primate prey and how primates acquire adaptive responses to counteract predation. In this study we took advantage of the recent reintroduction of radio–tagged harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja) to Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama to explore how mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata), one of their primary prey, acquire anti–predator defences. Based on the observation that harpies follow their prey prior to attack, and often call during this pursuit period, we broadcast harpy eagle calls to howlers on BCI as well as to a nearby control population with no harpy predation. Although harpies have been extinct from this area for 50–100 years, results indicate that BCI howlers rapidly acquired an adaptive anti–predator response to harpy calls, while showing no response to other avian vocalizations; howlers maintained this response several months after the removal of the eagles. These results not only show that non–human primates can rapidly acquire an alarm response to a newly introduced predator, but that they can detect and identify predators on the basis of acoustic cues alone. These findings have significant implications both for the role of learning mechanisms in the evolution of prey defence and for conservation strategies, suggesting that the use of ‘probing’ approaches, such as auditory playbacks, may highly enhance an a priori assessment of the impact of species reintroduction.

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