Whistling at a pretty girl or for hailing a cab or even for carrying a tune has always been a human domain. But recently an orangutan’s spontaneous whistling only after hearing a caretaker make the sound shocked scientists at Great Ape Trust of Iowa, and lead them to a new insight in to the evolution of speech and learning.
An international journal of primatology that provides a forum on all aspects of primates in relation to humans and other animals, Primates published a paper in December that documented for the first time ever a primate mimicking a sound from another species without being specifically trained to do so. This documentation was provided by Great Ape Trust scientist Dr. Serge Wich and his colleagues.
Bonnie, a 30-year old female orangutan living at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington D.C., began whistling on hearing the sound made by her care-taker. This caught scientists’ attention because it was long argued that orangutans have no voluntary control over their vocals and that their sounds are purely emotional – more like a response to stimuli like predators.
In previous studies it was indicated that orangutans and chimpanzees are capable of species-atypical sounds and vocalizations but only under strong influence of human training. However, this was the first time ever that Bonnie, an orangutan without any explicit human training mimicked the sound of whistle.
It has been long known that orangutans copy physical movements of human beings but Bonnie’s whistling indicates that orangutan and great apes not only have a certain level of control over their vocals but their learning capacities in the auditory domain may be more flexible than previously believed.