Navigation Links
Orangutan's spontaneous whistling opens new chapter in study of evolution of speech
Date:12/11/2008

Des Moines, Iowa December 11, 2008 Throughout history, human beings have used the whistle for everything from hailing a cab to carrying a tune. Now, an orangutan's spontaneous whistling is providing scientists at Great Ape Trust of Iowa new insights into the evolution of speech and learning.

In a paper published this month in Primates, an international journal of primatology that provides a forum on all aspects of primates in relation to humans and other animals, Great Ape Trust scientist Dr. Serge Wich and his colleagues provide the first-ever documentation of a primate mimicking a sound from another species without being specifically trained to do so. Bonnie, a 30-year-old female orangutan living at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., began whistling a sound that is in a human's, but not an orangutan's, repertoire after hearing an animal caretaker make the sound.

"This is important because it provides a mechanism to explain documented between-population variation in sounds for wild orangutans," Wich said. "In addition, it counters a long-held assumption that non-human primates have fairly fixed sound repertoires that are not under voluntary control. Being able to learn new sounds and use these voluntarily are also two important aspects of human speech and these findings open up new avenues to study certain aspects of human speech evolution in our closest relatives."

Previous studies have indicated that orangutans and chimpanzees are capable of species-atypical sounds and vocalizations, but only under the strong influence of human training. Bonnie, however, was not explicitly trained to whistle, according to Wich and his co-authors Great Ape Trust scientists Dr. Karyl Swartz and Dr. Rob Shumaker; Madeleine E. Hardus and Adriano R. Lameira, doctoral candidates at the Utrecht University in The Netherlands assigned to the Ketambe Research Center in Sumatra, where Wich is research co-manager; and Erin Stromberg, an animal caretaker at the National Zoo.

Scientists have long known that orangutans copy physical movements of humans, but Bonnie's whistling indicates that the learning capacities of orangutans and other great apes in the auditory domain might be more flexible than previously believed, Wich said. The behavior goes against the argument that orangutans have no control over their vocalizations and the sounds are purely emotional that is, an involuntary response to stimuli such as predators.

Bonnie appears to whistle for the sake of making a sound rather than to receive a food reward or some other incentive. If asked to whistle, she is likely to oblige, another indication to scientists that she makes the sound voluntarily.

In their paper, Wich and his colleagues also shared anecdotal information about Indah, a female orangutan who lived with Bonnie at the National Zoo before moving to Great Ape Trust in 2004. Indah also began to whistle some years after Bonnie was first observed making the sound in the late 1980s, but Indah died before recordings could be made of her whistles. Scientists believe that Indah's whistling was a vocalization learned from Bonnie.

That compares with what scientists assume about social learning in wild orangutan populations. For example earlier work by Dr. van Schaik and colleagues showed that wild orangutans in one population make a "raspberry" sound during nest-making, while orangutans in another population make a "nest smack" sound when engaged in the same activity. Wich said it's unlikely that purely genetic or ecological factors explain the differences in sounds of different orangutan populations. Rather, it's more likely others copy one orangutan's innovative sound because the sound serves a function.

"This is a very strong indication that different sounds among wild populations are learned and are not purely genetically or ecologically based," Wich said. "This is a great indication that orangutans can learn sounds not in their repertoire from another species, and they are flexible in using them."

The scientific investigation with Bonnie at the National Zoo was supported in part by a grant from the David Bohnett Foundation and complements field studies of wild orangutans, where differences have been noted in the call repertoires between populations. A strength at Great Ape Trust is the ability of its scientists to conduct simultaneous studies on both captive orangutans and wild orangutans on the Indonesian island of Sumatra at the Ketambe Research Center, where Wich is research co-manager.

"Bringing captive and field research together is an unharvested field," Wich said, "and it offers great potential to Great Ape Trust."

The research also builds on earlier investigations by ape language pioneer Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh a scientist with special standing at Great Ape Trust, and others on the ability of great apes to imitate human speech. Specifically, Savage-Rumbaugh's 1991 investigation centered on whether the bonobo Kanzi, a member of the colony of bonobos now living at Great Ape Trust, might have structurally different vocalizations than bonobos in another group. In a 2004 study, Savage-Rumbaugh looked at whether Kanzi was attempting to imitate human speech.

The results of these studies did enlarge scientists' appreciation of the plasticity in primate sound and vocal learning and indicated that primates might have some plasticity to produce completely new sounds, Wich and his colleagues wrote.

The new findings reopen the door on such research.

"One of the main things we do not understand yet is the evolution of speech," Wich said.

Wich will present the findings on Dec. 18 at a scientific symposium on orangutan genetics at the University of Zrich, Switzerland.

arily.

In their paper, Wich and his colleagues also shared anecdotal information about Indah, a female orangutan who lived with Bonnie at the National Zoo before moving to Great Ape Trust in 2004. Indah also began to whistle some years after Bonnie was first observed making the sound in the late 1980s, but Indah died before recordings could be made of her whistles. Scientists believe that Indah's whistling was a vocalization learned from Bonnie.

That compares with what scientists assume about social learning in wild orangutan populations. For example earlier work by Dr. van Schaik and colleagues showed that wild orangutans in one population make a "raspberry" sound during nest-making, while orangutans in another population make a "nest smack" sound when engaged in the same activity. Wich said it's unlikely that purely genetic or ecological factors explain the differences in sounds of different orangutan populations. Rather, it's more likely others copy one orangutan's innovative sound because the sound serves a function.

"This is a very strong indication that different sounds among wild populations are learned and are not purely genetically or ecologically based," Wich said. "This is a great indication that orangutans can learn sounds not in their repertoire from another species, and they are flexible in using them."

The scientific investigation with Bonnie at the National Zoo was supported in part by a grant from the David Bohnett Foundation and complements field studies of wild orangutans, where differences have been noted in the call repertoires between populations. A strength at Great Ape Trust is the ability of its scientists to conduct simultaneous studies on both captive orangutans and wild orangutans on the Indonesian island of Sumatra at the Ketambe Research Center, where Wich is research co-manager.

"Bringing captive and field research together is an unharvested field," Wich said, "and it offers great potential to Great Ape Trust."

The research also builds on earlier investigations by ape language pioneer Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh a scientist with special standing at Great Ape Trust, and others on the ability of great apes to imitate human speech. Specifically, Savage-Rumbaugh's 1991 investigation centered on whether the bonobo Kanzi, a member of the colony of bonobos now living at Great Ape Trust, might have structurally different vocalizations than bonobos in another group. In a 2004 study, Savage-Rumbaugh looked at whether Kanzi was attempting to imitate human speech.

The results of these studies did enlarge scientists' appreciation of the plasticity in primate sound and vocal learning and indicated that primates might have some plasticity to produce completely new sounds, Wich and his colleagues wrote.

The new findings reopen the door on such research.

"One of the main things we do not understand yet is the evolution of speech," Wich said.

Wich will present the findings on Dec. 18 at a scientific symposium on orangutan genetics at the University of Zrich, Switzerland.


'/>"/>

Contact: Al Setka
asetka@greatapetrust.org
515-243-3580
Great Ape Trust of Iowa
Source:Eurekalert  

Related biology news :

1. Who will recover spontaneously from hepatitis C virus infection
2. Researchers observe spontaneous ratcheting of single ribosome molecules
3. A study by the MUHC and McGill University opens a new door to understanding cancer
4. Same gene protects from 1 disease, opens door to another
5. IdentiPHI Opens Paris Office to Boost European Sales and Support
6. Cold treatment opens doors for citrus exports to Japan
7. Truck-safe bamboo bridge opens in China
8. Profound immune system discovery opens door to halting destruction of lupus
9. Electronic switch opens doors in rheumatoid joints
10. Experimental Biology and Medicine announces expansion into Asia, opens new office
11. New window opens on the secret life of microbes
Post Your Comments:
*Name:
*Comment:
*Email:
Related Image:
Orangutan's spontaneous whistling opens new chapter in study of evolution of speech
(Date:4/14/2016)... 14, 2016 BioCatch ™, ... today announced the appointment of Eyal Goldwerger ... Goldwerger,s leadership appointment comes at a time ... the deployment of its platform at several of the ... which discerns unique cognitive and physiological factors, is a ...
(Date:3/31/2016)... 2016  Genomics firm Nabsys has completed a financial ... Bready , M.D., who returned to the company in ... leadership team, including Chief Technology Officer, John Oliver ... Nurnberg and Vice President of Software and Informatics, ... Dr. Bready served as CEO of Nabsys from ...
(Date:3/22/2016)... 2016 According to ... for Consumer Industry by Type (Image, Motion, Pressure, ... & IT, Entertainment, Home Appliances, & Wearable ... 2022", published by MarketsandMarkets, the market for ... USD 26.76 Billion by 2022, at a ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:6/27/2016)... 27, 2016  Liquid Biotech USA ... of a Sponsored Research Agreement with The University ... (CTCs) from cancer patients.  The funding will be ... correlate with clinical outcomes in cancer patients undergoing ... then be employed to support the design of ...
(Date:6/24/2016)... (PRWEB) , ... June 24, 2016 , ... While the ... such as the Cary 5000 and the 6000i models are higher end machines that ... the height of the spectrophotometer’s light beam from the bottom of the cuvette holder. ...
(Date:6/23/2016)... , June 23, 2016   Boston Biomedical ... novel compounds designed to target cancer stemness pathways, ... been granted Orphan Drug Designation from the U.S. ... of gastric cancer, including gastroesophageal junction (GEJ) cancer. ... designed to inhibit cancer stemness pathways by targeting ...
(Date:6/23/2016)... ... June 23, 2016 , ... ... and Mold) microbial test has received AOAC Research Institute approval 061601. , “This ... introduced last year,” stated Bob Salter, Vice President of Regulatory and Industrial Affairs. ...
Breaking Biology Technology: