Orangutan Learns to Control Vocalizations.

Rachel Premack’s Washington Post story on Rocky, an 11-year-old orangutan who has learned to control the pitch and volume of his vocalizations, is admirably restrained for a newspaper story on language, carefully stating:

Shumaker noted that this shouldn’t be equated with the words and communication of humans. Rocky’s grunts have no deeper meaning — other than that, Shumaker believes, Rocky originally learned these sounds to get human attention.

But what was shown is still fairly significant:

The learning aspect of Rocky’s grunts are another crucial component [of more complex communication]. It’s something he likely learned from humans, rather than an organic sound that all orangutans make. Researchers determined this by comparing his sounds with what they call “the largest database ever assembled of orangutan calls,” which comprises more than 12,000 hours of observing 120 orangutans both wild and captive. Rocky’s sounds were confirmed to have an entirely different frequency range.

“We’ve demonstrated that apes are able to learn a new vocalization that is unknown in their species,” Shumaker said. “We don’t know how he learned it, but he either innovated it on his own or was able to reproduce it, then learn it. There’s no doubt now that apes are able to acquire or learn new vocalization.”

As longtime LH readers will be aware, I have no truck with breathless “Animals can talk!” pieces, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in studies like this. Give ’em a million or so years, and these apes may be writing blogs. (Thanks, Eric!)

Update. See Mark Liberman’s well-informed post at the Log.


  1. Vladimir Diakoff says

    “Give ’em a million or so years, and these apes may be writing blogs.”

    The study suggests that apes might have evolved from humans, not the other way around, as previously thought – The Onion.

  2. Isn’t the significance of these studies enhanced by the humans’ continuing pretense of biological exclusivity vs. the apes and the extinct hominins in all biological underpinnings of culture? Until recently it was normal to assume that even Neanderthals didn’t yet have art, language etc. because they “surely” were anatomically physiologically incapable of any aspects of it. Sure, birds produce complex sounds and beautiful mating displays, etc., but the idea is that at least in *our* ape lineage, we are totally unparalleled and unique. So it’s still a news that some of these abilities exist in apes … even though dogs and seals learned it before.

  3. Yes, I think that’s part of what makes these studies so interesting.

  4. Vladimir Diakoff says

    I beg to differ: a study like this does suggest that humans are rather unique in our ape lineage. Without humans and their intricate system of transspecific research and training – unparalleled in the animal kingdom -, apes wouldn’t have any clue that they can utter speech sounds.

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