Primate Communication - SE557

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Module delivery information

Location Term Level1 Credits (ECTS)2 Current Convenor3 2020 to 2021
Spring 6 15 (7.5) DR B Wheeler checkmark-circle


The diversity and complexity of primate sociality is reflected in the diversity and complexity of their communication strategies. This module complements the module ANTB5800 'Primate Behaviour & Ecology' by examining the ways in which primates communicate with one another through olfactory, tactile, visual, and acoustic signals. We will address fundamental questions in animal communication including: Is it appropriate to characterize such communication in terms of information transfer? How does communication evolve? What maintains signal honesty, and under what conditions can deceptive communication can evolve? The module will cover the physical and biological bases of signal production and perception. We will explore the extent to which studies of primate communication can provide a window into their minds. Finally, we will delve into the question of the relevance of primate communication for understanding the evolution of human language.


This module appears in the following module collections.

Contact hours



BSc Biological Anthropology
BSc Anthropology and associated programmes
BSc Wildlife Conservation
Available as a wild module

Method of assessment

50% Exam; 50% Coursework
Essay (40%)
Seminar Participation (10%)

Indicative reading

Bradbury, J. W. & Vehrencamp, S. L. 2011. Principles of Animal Communication.
Fitch, W. T. 2010. The Evolution of Language, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ Press.
Hauser, M. D. 1996. The Evolution of Communication, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.
Liebal, K., Waller, B. M., Slocombe, K. E. & Burrows, A. M. 2013. Primate Communication: a Multimodal Approach, Cambridge University Press.
Maynard Smith, J. & Harper, D. 2003. Animal Signals, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Searcy, W. A. & Nowicki, S. 2005. The Evolution of Animal Communication: Reliability and Deception in Signaling Systems, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

8.1 understand what constitutes communication, and be able to critically evaluate arguments for and against the characterization of communication as the transfer of information versus the manipulation of receivers;
8.2 understand how communication evolves, what maintains the honesty of animal signals, and when deceptive communication can evolve;
8.3 describe the different sensory modalities in which primates communicate, explain the factors that favour signals to be produced in one modality as opposed to another, and understand how primatologists study the production and perception of signals in each modality;
8.4 appreciate our understanding of the cognitive basis of primate communication in each modality;
8.5 critically evaluate different viewpoints regarding the evolutionary relationship between human language and non-human primate communication;
8.6 describe in detail a signaling system of a particular species of non-human primate.


  1. Credit level 6. Higher level module usually taken in Stage 3 of an undergraduate degree.
  2. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  3. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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