An Orangutan and a Whistle

A recent discovery has revealed that some of the other great apes are even closer to us than we previously thought.

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 in December 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.”

Bonnie

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