Orangutans Use Hands to Help Create Fake Voices
Orangutans can impersonate larger, scarier animals by altering their calls with their hands.
Orangutans use their hands to manipulate their voices, producing fake calls in hopes of scaring away intruders, a new study reports.
The research, published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, adds to the growing body of evidence that someanimals can learn to modify sound. This is an essential tool for language acquisition.
"Orangutans may be aware that they can influence their call and it changes the reaction of the predator, and this is a simple form of learning, which is a very important first step in language," co-author Bart de Boers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, told Kathryn Knight of the journal.
Another interesting aspect of this research is that it proves kisses aren't all about romance and sweetness in the primate world. The calls that de Boers and his colleagues studied are known as "kiss squeaks." To an unsuspecting human, they look and sound as though an orangutan is blowing a kiss at them. Far from it!
"Orangutans make these kiss-squeak alarm calls if humans and dangerous animals come near," de Boers said.
Watch what happens when this orangutan mom detects that a human is close by:
In the video, starting at about the 20-second spot, the orangutan mother uses a hand to cover her mouth. This is what de Boers and his team noticed.
Analyzing the manipulated sounds further, the researchers determined that the orangutan was using her hand to lower the sound's pitch and make it deeper. Humans can do this too by speaking in a deeper than normal voice while cupping one or both hands over the mouth.
For a wild primate to accomplish this is no small feat.
"The problem is that the orangutan is not sitting still on a branch making its noises," de Boer reminded. ‘There are cicadas singing in the background, rustling leaves-all kinds of horrible stuff going on."
Even with all of these sounds and interruptions, the orangutan's manipulated calls surprisingly match those of much larger, formidable primates, the researchers discovered. The calls were also amplified, thanks to the hand manipulation.
Other studies on orangutans have found that some can whistle tunes, use their tongues to produce different clicking tones and produce sounds that resemble our consonants. So studying orangutans could help shed light on the emergence and evolution of human speech.
Photo: An orangutan manipulating its calls by cupping a hand over its mouth. Credit: Madeleine Hardus
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