Social primates use vocalisations far more selectively than scientists previously thought, the researchers said. They found that ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) living in groups primarily call and respond to the individuals with which they have close relationships.

While grooming is a common social-bonding experience for lemurs and other primates, the researchers found that lemurs reserved vocal exchanges for the animals that they groomed most frequently.

Lemurs vocalise to essentially 'groom-at-a-distance' and keep in touch when the group members they are closest with get separated such as when foraging for food, said first author Ipek Kulahci, who received her PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton University in the US.

"Our results indicate that when animals respond to each other's vocalisations, they are in fact also working on maintaining their social bonds," Kulahci noted. "By exchanging vocalisations, the animals are reinforcing their social bonds even when they are away from each other," Kulahci said.

The findings could have implications for how scientists understand the evolution of primate vocalisations and human speech, the researchers said.

The findings appeared in the journal Animal Behaviour.

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