Vocal fold control beyond the species-specific repertoire in an orang-utan

Adriano R Lameira, Madeleine E Hardus, Alexander Mielke, Serge A Wich, Robert W Shumaker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Vocal fold control was critical to the evolution of spoken language, much as it today allows us to learn vowel systems. It has, however, never been demonstrated directly in a non-human primate, leading to the suggestion that it evolved in the human lineage after divergence from great apes. Here, we provide the first evidence for real-time, dynamic and interactive vocal fold control in a great ape during an imitation "do-as-I-do" game with a human demonstrator. Notably, the orang-utan subject skilfully produced "wookies"-an idiosyncratic vocalization exhibiting a unique spectral profile among the orang-utan vocal repertoire. The subject instantaneously matched human-produced wookies as they were randomly modulated in pitch, adjusting his voice frequency up or down when the human demonstrator did so, readily generating distinct low vs. high frequency sub-variants. These sub-variants were significantly different from spontaneous ones (not produced in matching trials). Results indicate a latent capacity for vocal fold exercise in a great ape (i) in real-time, (ii) up and down the frequency spectrum, (iii) across a register range beyond the species-repertoire and, (iv) in a co-operative turntaking social setup. Such ancestral capacity likely provided the neuro-behavioural basis of the more fine-tuned vocal fold control that is a human hallmark.

Original languageEnglish
Article number30315
Number of pages10
JournalScientific Reports
Volume6
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jul 2016

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