Cristiane Cäsar, a biologist at the University of St Andrews, UK, and her colleagues report that the titis mix and match two distinct calls to tell each other about the type of predator that endangers them, as well as the location of the threat. Her results are published in Biology Letters.

Cäsar's team worked with five groups of titis that live in a private nature reserve in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil. When the researchers placed a stuffed caracara — a bird of prey — in the treetops, the titis gave out A-calls, which have a rising pitch. When the animals saw a ground-based threat — represented by an oncilla, a small spotted cat — they produced B-calls, sounds with a falling pitch.

However, when the team moved the predator models around, the monkeys tweaked their calls. If the caracara was on the ground, the monkeys started with at least four A-calls before adding B-calls into the mix. If the oncilla was in a tree, the monkeys made a single introductory A-call before switching to B-calls.