Original Article


, Volume 50, Issue 1, pp 56-64

First online:

A case of spontaneous acquisition of a human sound by an orangutan

  • Serge A. WichAffiliated withGreat Ape Trust of IowaResearch Group Behavioural Biology, Utrecht University Email author 
  • , Karyl B. SwartzAffiliated withGreat Ape Trust of IowaSmithsonian’s National Zoological Park
  • , Madeleine E. HardusAffiliated withResearch Group Behavioural Biology, Utrecht University
  • , Adriano R. LameiraAffiliated withResearch Group Behavioural Biology, Utrecht University
  • , Erin StrombergAffiliated withSmithsonian’s National Zoological Park
  • , Robert W. ShumakerAffiliated withGreat Ape Trust of IowaSmithsonian’s National Zoological Park

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The capacity of nonhuman primates to actively modify the acoustic structure of existing sounds or vocalizations in their repertoire appears limited. Several studies have reported population or community differences in the acoustical structure of nonhuman primate long distance calls and have suggested vocal learning as a mechanism for explaining such variation. In addition, recent studies on great apes have indicated that there are repertoire differences between populations. Some populations have sounds in their repertoire that others have not. These differences have also been suggested to be the result of vocal learning. On yet another level great apes can, after extensive human training, also learn some species atypical vocalizations. Here we show a new aspect of great ape vocal learning by providing data that an orangutan has spontaneously (without any training) acquired a human whistle and can modulate the duration and number of whistles to copy a human model. This might indicate that the learning capacities of great apes in the auditory domain might be more flexible than hitherto assumed.


Vocal learning Great apes Imitation