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Heart rate measures were used to examine the functional response of young chimpanzees and orangutans to acoustic stimuli, including white noise and chimpanzee vocalizations (threat, stress, and alarm). The initial response of the animals to all stimuli was characterized by a prominent cardiac deceleration and an increase in heart period variability. The deceleratory responses persisted with repeated presentations of the noise, stress, and alarm stimuli. In contrast, the response of chimpanzees to the conspecific threat stimulus reverted over trials to a notable cardiac acceleration. This acceleratory response was not attributable to potential patterns of evoked somatic responses. The features of the cardiac response, together with the results of frequency-domain analyses of heart period variability, suggest that this acceleratory response was consistent with the evocation of an aversive or a defensive reaction characterized by sympathetic activation. This pattern of cardiac response appeared early in ontogeny (within 48 hr postnatally) and was not manifest in orangutans. Taken together, the results suggest the existence of specialized perceptual processing mechanisms for vocal stimuli in the chimpanzee. Further examination of these mechanisms may contribute to our understanding of central perceptual processes and the evolution of vocal communication.


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