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Evolution Of Small Talk: Chictchat Is Important For Social Bonding

First Posted: Dec 15, 2015 01:45 PM EST

Most of us think of small talk as a short and sometimes awkward way to pass the time. However, new research suggests that it's important for social-bonding and may have been passed down from our primate ancestors.

Researchers at Princeton University found that social primates used vocalizations much more selectively than once thought.

"Our results indicate that when animals respond to each other's vocalizations, they are in fact also working on maintaining their social bonds," said lead study author Ipek Kulahci, who worked with her co-authors and doctoral advisers Asif Ghazanfar, a professor of psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and Daniel Rubenstein, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, in a news release

During the study, researchers examined the vocal interactions and grooming networks of various groups of ringtailed lemurs (Lemur catta) at Duke University's Lemur Center and on St. Catherines Island in Georgia. Findings showed that grooming was only performed between certain individuals and the animals only used vocalizations with those that they had groomed most often.

Lumurs use their vocalization skills as a way to "groom-at-a distance," researchers say. In other words, this is how they keep in touch with their closest friends, even when they separate to forage for food. 

Researchers recorded the vocalizations of individual lemurs and played them back to the group-showing, again, that they would only respond to those they shared a close grooming relationship with; this was true even when the lemur making the vocalization was not nearby.

"By exchanging vocalizations, the animals are reinforcing their social bonds even when they are away from each other. This social selectivity in vocalizations is almost equivalent to how we humans keep in regular touch with our close friends and families, but not with everyone we know."

With future research, the study authors believe that lemurs' use of grooming and vocalization to establish higher levels of familiarity could help scientists understand interrelated forms of communication.

The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

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