The Elgin Center is a non-profit research center which specializes in zoosemiotics, or animal communication. The Elgin Center carries out research in the wild (in Nicaragua at The Maderas rainforest conservancy, in a lab (where the center performs anatomical studies on animal brains with regard to language areas, and in a semi-free ranging environment (primarily at Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida in the United States).
A primary focus of the center has been research on the vocalizations of Lion Country Safari's chimpanzees.
Group-specific vocalizations and vocal evolution in chimpanzees
One of the first findings at the center concerned chimpanzee vocalizations. Chimpanzees have been found to have group-specific vocalizations (the structure of chimpanzee calls vary from group to group). This gives evidence that chimpanzee calls are learned rather than genetically inherited. At Lion Country Safari, the largest chimpanzee group was separated in 2004, with seven of the group going to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Two years later, the vocalizations were analyzed and it was determined that the way they were vocalizing was slightly different from their original group - giving evidence that chimpanzee vocalization evolve in much the same way human dialects do. This provides a direct link between chimpanzee vocal communication and human language.
The center has also performed cognitive studies with the Lion Country Safari chimpanzees. These studies have included the ability of chimpanzees to understand certain mathematical properties (number conservation, fractions, quantity comparisons from memory, etc.), the ability of chimpanzees to discern binary oppositions, and the ability of chimpanzees to understand 2-dimensional photographs as representations of real life. These studies are done in an effort to determine if there is a cognitive structure inherent in the chimpanzee mind which would be conducive to a grammatical ability.
Alarm calls in wild capuchin monkeys
The center also studies the alarm calls of wild Capuchin monkeys in Ometepe, Nicaragua. Capuchin monkeys produce alarm call relative to the predator Previous surveys show two distinct families of alarm calls - those dealing with terrestrial predators and those dealing with aerial predators. Alarm calls focused on human threats fall into the aerial category. A sample of over 1500 alarm call vocalizations from a group of previously unstudied wild Capuchin monkeys were recorded on Ometepe island in Nicaragua during the summer of 2008. The calls were analyzed for spectral peak frequencies and onset durations and compared with previously published data of Capuchin alarm calls. The results reveal no significant difference between the terrestrial alarm calls analyzed in the published accounts and the human predator calls recorded in Nicaragua. The results also show a significant difference between the human predator alarm calls in Nicaragua and the aerial alarm calls in the published data. This suggests a geographic variation in the genetic based alarm calls of Capuchin monkeys.
- Digweed, S. M., Fedigan, L. M., & Rendall, D. (2005). Variable specificity in the anti-predator vocalizations and behaviour of the white-faced capuchin, Cebus capucinus. Behaviour, 142: 997– 1021
- Gros-Louis, J.J., Perry, S.E., Fichtel, C., Wikberg, E., Gilkenson, H., Wofsy, S,. Fuentes, A. (2008). Vocal Repertoire of Cebus capucinus: Acoustic Structure, Context, and Usage. Int J Primatology, 29: 3: 641-670