Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 505–518 | Cite as

Vocal–gestural combinations in infant bonobos: new insights into signal functional specificity

  • E. GentyEmail author
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Evolving the study of gesture


Comparing the communicative abilities of humans and great apes is a commonly used research strategy to understand the evolutionary foundation of modern human language. The ability to combine signals from different communicative modes (vocal, gestural, facial, etc.) is a universal and important feature of human language that is shared with great apes, although rarely investigated. Research on apes’ signal combination has usually studied the frequency, distribution, effectiveness, and function of combinations in comparison with single signals, but only seldom have studies addressed their functional specificity, i.e., their ability to convey specific signallers’ goals within contexts. Here, I suggest a new methodological approach to the investigation of functional specificity of signals, which consists of focusing on one call type and exploring its various patterns of production when combined with gestures. I illustrate the different methodological steps with a case study on infant bonobos’ combinations of ‘Pout moan’ calls with gestures in the context of infant-to-mother requests. The descriptive results indicate that at least three combinations seem functionally specific, i.e., specific to the infants’ desired goals. It suggests that combinations can be functionally specific from a young age and that learning how to combine signals efficiently might occur early in ontogeny. This suggested approach might provide insight to the on-going debate regarding the mechanisms underpinning the learning process of successful signal production and potentially further our understanding of the evolution of the combinatorial characteristics of human communication.


Bonobos Signal combination Vocalisation Gesture Functional specificity Pout moan Learning 



I would like to thank Klaus Zuberbühler for making this research possible and for his long-term collaboration and support. Thanks to Sarah McHugh for acting as a second rater and to Christof Neumann and Raphaela Heesen for their help in creating the figures. I am grateful to Claudine André and Brian Hare for permission to work at ‘Lola Ya Bonobo’, to Pierrot Mbonzo, Fanny Minesi and Raphaël Belais for their administrative support, and to the Ministry of Research and the Ministry of Environment in the Democratic Republic of Congo for giving me permission to carry out this research. I am grateful to all the Lola staff for their assistance. A very special thank you to E.A. Cartmill and Jacob G. Foster for fruitful discussions and invaluable comments and suggestions on this manuscript. Special thanks to E. A. Cartmill and C. Hobaiter for inviting me to contribute to this Special Issue.


Studies from the author reported in this manuscript have received funding from the European Commission Sixth Framework Programme ‘Origins of Referential Communication’, contract 12787, the Leverhulme Research Leadership Award No F00268AP, the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 283871, and the Swiss National Science Foundation ‘Coordinating joint action in apes: Testing the boundaries of the human interaction engine’ CR31I3_159655.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All research was performed in accordance with the ethical ASAB/ABS Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Research and was conducted in compliance with animal care regulations and applicable national laws (Congolese research permit: MIN.RS/SG/004/2009). We received ethical approval from the scientific coordinator and scientific committee of ‘Les Amis des Bonobos’ for this study.

Supplementary material

10071_2019_1267_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (142 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 142 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IPTO, University of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland

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