Primate Rescue Center

Secret Ape Chatter is Discovered

Erika Fleury April 11, 2015

A scientist who worked at the University of St Andrews has claimed to have found a secretive ape language.

Working alongside fellow scientists at Durham University, Dr Esther Clarke has found a secretive language amongst gibbons after a four-month study in which they recorded the apes making 450 subtly different “hoo” calls.

Jenny is a siamang gibbon at the PRC.

These unique calls, whose differences are virtually indistinguishable to the human ear, were found to be made for a variety of different reasons, including warning others of predators and upon meeting other gibbons.

These whispers, or soft calls, were first found by scientists in the 1940s but were so quiet that the researchers had trouble hearing and analysing them.

New computer analysis with sophisticated recording equipment has managed to find distinguishable patterns in the noises made in their natural habitat in the forests of south-east Asia.

Clarke, lead author of the newly-published report, said: “During my undergraduate degree I went to the States where I got to work as a primate keeper. I was always interested in monkeys and apes and I got to work with gibbons there, which is where I first heard them sing. That is when I basically became fascinated by them.”

After first going to Thailand to record their song, Clarke realised the “hoo” noises that the gibbons made and decided to record them when she found that there were succinct differences between the calls.

She said: “These animals are extraordinarily vocal creatures and give us the rare opportunity to study the evolution of complex vocal communication in a non-human primate.

“In the future, gibbon vocalisations may reveal much about the processes that shape vocal communication. Because they are an ape species, they may be one of our best hopes at tracing the evolution of human communication.” The team’s studies found that within the 450 “hoo” noises analysed, there were a range of “words” to distinguish different threats to the apes, such as snakes, tigers and birds of prey.

The study showed that the calls would even distinguish different types of bird, even though these calls were the quietest due to the birds’ heightened sense of hearing. Although the findings that animals can “speak” to each other are nothing new, Clarke said these specific gibbon noises tell us a lot about the evolution of complexity within language, and give us real clues about how humans started to talk.

Scientists in North America have had similar ideas about these primate calls. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have been working to produce a dictionary that deciphers the calls. Using complex computer algorithms, the scientists have analysed the whoops and songs which are sung by the gibbon, finding them made up of high notes when predators are near. The singing is said to begin after a series of soft calls in which they warn each other.

The university has released some rough translations of the basics for any future encounters you may have with a gibbon, including “Waa-hoo-wa-waa-wa-wa”, which directly translates as “I’m a male gibbon and I’m with her”.

Other useful phrases include “Wooo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” which means “be careful, a snake is about”.

- The National

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