Orangutan Mimicks Human Speech, Shocks Scientists


There is an orangutan who can ape human speech and his name is Rocky.

Scientists at Durham University believe they have discovered new clues into how human speech evolved.

An orangutan called Rocky is capable of controlling his voice and emulating human speech.

Scientists have long believed that great apes are incapable of controlling their voices or learning make new sounds. They believed that our ability to speak did not evolve from our closest ancestors.

Rocky has learnt to emulate new sounds in a “conversational” context.

A study by Durham University strongly suggests that our ability to speak – the very thing that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom – did in fact stem from great apes.

orangutan gizmag reports:

The research focused on a now 11 year-old orangutan, living at Indianapolis Zoo in Indiana. While being sure not to cause any major disruption to the animal’s daily routine, the Durham team visited the great ape, named Rocky, in April and May 2012, and on several occasions since.

While with Rocky, the researchers conducted a simple, but extremely insightful test. While working with the ape, they made random sounds with varying tone and pitch. Fascinatingly, Rocky was then observed to mimic the sounds, repeating after the researchers in the same pitch and tone.

While that discovery might not immediately grab you as all that important, it actually contradicts long-term assumptions about the voices of great apes.

“Instead of learning new sounds, it has been presumed that sounds made by great apes are driven by arousal over which they have no control,” said Durham University’s Dr Adriano Lameira. “But our research proves that orangutans have the potential capacity to control the actions of their voices.”

With the findings seemingly disproving the notion that our closest ancestors could not learn to produce new sounds, the research strongly indicates that our ability to speak – the very thing that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom – did in fact stem from great apes.

The team compared recordings of the sounds made by Rocky with the largest available database of orangutan calls, containing sounds gathered from more than 120 apes, over 12,000 hours of observations of both wild and captive populations. The recordings of Rocky were found to be different to those in the database, supporting the notion that he learned the new sounds in a “conversational” context.

The research was published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only case of the study of nature providing clues to our own past. Take, for example, the recent Dartmouth study of the aye-aye – a type of prosimian – and its love of alcoholic foods. As it turns out, a genetic mutation shared by both those primates and humans could explain our own ancestors’ love of alcohol.

Some of Rocky’s vocalizations can be heard in the video below.

Source: Durham University

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