Advertisement

Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Why do gorillas make sequences of gestures?

Abstract

Great ape gestures have attracted considerable research interest in recent years, prompted by their flexible and intentional pattern of use; but almost all studies have focused on single gestures. Here, we report the first quantitative analysis of sequential gesture use in western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), using data from three captive groups and one African study site. We found no evidence that gesture sequences were given for reasons of increased communicative efficiency over single gestures. Longer sequences of repeated gestures did not increase the likelihood of response, and using a sequence was seldom in reaction to communicative failure. Sequential combination of two gestures with similar meanings did not generally increase effectiveness, and sometimes reduced it. Gesture sequences were closely associated with play contexts. Markov transition analysis showed two networks of frequently co-occurring gestures, both consisting of gestures used to regulate play. One network comprised only tactile gestures, the other a mix of silent, audible and tactile gestures; apparently, these clusters resulted from gesture use in play with proximal or distal contact, respectively. No evidence was found for syntactic effects of sequential combination: meanings changed little or not at all. Semantically, many gestures overlapped massively with others in their core information (i.e. message), and gesture messages spanned relatively few functions. We suggest that the underlying semantics of gorilla gestures is highly simplified compared to that of human words. Gesture sequences allow continual adjustment of the tempo and nature of social interactions, rather than generally conveying semantically referential information or syntactic structures.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

References

  1. Breuer T, Breuer-Ndoundou Hockemba M, Olejniczak C, Parnell RJ, Stokes EJ (2009) Physical maturation, life-history classes and age estimates of free-ranging western gorillas-insights from Mbeli Bai, Republic of Congo. Am J Primatol 71:106–119

  2. Call J, Tomasello M (2007) The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale

  3. Cartmill EA, Byrne RW (2007) Orangutans modify their gestural signalling according to their audience’s comprehension. Curr Biol 17:1345–1348

  4. Catchpole CK, Slater PJB (1995) Bird song: biological themes and variations. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  5. Clarke E, Reichard UH, Zuberbuhler K (2006) The syntax and meaning of wild gibbon songs. PLoS ONE 1:e73

  6. Fabricius E, Jansson A (1963) Laboratory observations on the reproductive behaviour of the ring dove during the pre-incubation phase of the breeding cycle. Anim Behav 11:534–539

  7. Gardner RA, Gardner BT, Van Cantfort TE (1989) Teaching sign language to chimpanzees. SUNY Press, New York

  8. Genty E, Breuer T, Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2009) Gestural communication of the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla): repertoire, intentionality and possible origins. Anim Cogn 12:527–546. doi:10.1007/s10071-009-0213-4

  9. Greenfield PM, Savage-Rumbaugh ES (1990) Grammatical combination in Pan paniscus: processes of learning and invention in the evolution and development of language. In: Parker ST, Gibson KR (eds) ‘Language’ and intelligence in monkeys and apes: comparative development perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 540–578

  10. Hopkins WD, Taglialatella JP, Leavens DA (2007) Chimpanzees differentially produce novel vocalizations to capture the attention of a human. Anim Behav 73:281–286

  11. King BJ (2004) The dynamic dance: nonvocal communication in African great apes. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

  12. Leavens DA, Hostetter AB, Wesley MJ, Hopkins WD (2004) Tactical use of unimodal and bimodal communication by chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Anim Behav 67:467–476

  13. Leavens DA, Russell JL, Hopkins WD (2005) Intentionality as measured in the persistence and elaboration of communication by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Child Dev 76

  14. Liebal K (2007) Gestures in orangutans. In: Call J, Tomasello M (eds) The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, pp 69–98

  15. Liebal K, Call J, Tomasello M (2004a) The use of gesture sequences in chimpanzees. Am J Primatol 64:377–396

  16. Liebal K, Pika S, Call J, Tomasello M (2004b) To move or not to move; how apes adjust to the attentional state of others. Interact Stud 5:199–219

  17. Liebal K, Pika S, Tomasello M (2006) Gestural communication of orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). Gesture 6:1–38

  18. Mandelbrot B (1961) On the theory of word frequencies and on related Markovian models of discourse. Proc Symp Appl Math 12:190–219

  19. Mc Cowan B, Hanser SH, Doyle LR (1999) Quantitative tools for comparing animal communication systems: information theory applied to bottlenose dolphin whistle repertoires. Anim Behav 57:409–419

  20. Napier JR (1980) Hands. George Allan and Unwin Ltd, London

  21. Parnell RJ (2002) Group size and structure in western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at Mbeli Bai, Republic of Congo. Am J Primatol 56:193–206

  22. Pika S (2007a) Gestures in subadult bonobos (Pan paniscus). In: Call J, Tomasello M (eds) The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, pp 41–67

  23. Pika S (2007b) Gestures in subadult gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). In: Call J, Tomasello M (eds) The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, pp 99–130

  24. Pika S, Liebal K, Tomasello M (2003) Gestural communication in young gorillas (Gorilla gorilla): Gestural repertoire, learning, and use. Am J Primatol 60:95–111

  25. Pustet R (2004) Zipf and his heirs. Lang Sci 26:1–25

  26. Smith WJ (1965) Message, meaning and context in ethology. Am Nat 99:405–409

  27. Snowdon CT (1990) Language capacities of nonhuman animals. Yearb Phys Anthropol 33:215–243

  28. Suzuki R, Buck JR, Tyack PL (2005) The use of Zipf’s law in animal communication analysis. Anim Behav 69:F9–F17

  29. Tanner JE (2004) Gestural phrases and gestural exchanges by a pair of zoo-living lowland gorillas. Gesture 4:1–24

  30. Tanner JE, Byrne RW (1993) Concealing facial evidence of mood: evidence for perspective-taking in a captive gorilla? Primates 34:451–456

  31. Tanner JE, Byrne RW (1996) Representation of action through iconic gesture in a captive lowland gorilla. Curr Anthropol 37:162–173

  32. Tanner JE, Byrne RW (1999) The development of spontaneous gestural communication in a group of zoo-living lowland gorillas. In: Parker ST, Mitchell RW, Miles HL (eds) The mentalities of gorillas and orangutans. Comparative perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 211–239

  33. Tomasello M, Call J (2007) Intentional communication in nonhuman primates. In: Call J, Tomasello M (eds) The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, pp 1–15

  34. Tomasello M, Gust D, Frost TA (1989) A longitudinal investigation of gestural communication in young chimpanzees. Primates 30:35–50

  35. Zipf GK (1949) Human behavior and the principle of least effort: an introduction to human ecology. Addison-Wesley, Cambridge

  36. Zuberbuhler K (2002) A syntactic rule in forest monkey communication. Anim Behav 63:293–299

Download references

Acknowledgments

This work was conducted as part of the European Commission Sixth Framework Programme “Origins of Referential Communication”, contract 12787. We thank WCS Congo for permission to work at Mbeli Bai, Congo, and in particular Emma Stokes and Mark Gately for essential logistical support, and Joel Glick for help in the field. Particular thanks are due to Thomas Breuer for allowing us to use video material on gorilla behaviour collected at Mbeli Bai. We are grateful to Basel and Zürich Zoos, Switzerland, and to La Vallée des Singes, France, for allowing us to study their excellent gorilla groups, and especially to Jakob Huber at Basel, Robert Zingg at Zürich, and Jan Vermeer at La Vallée, who gave us help throughout. Peter Slater gave us valuable help towards appropriate analyses and interpretation. We thank Erica Cartmill, Barbara King, Katja Liebal, Joanne Tanner and three anonymous referees for many helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Author information

Correspondence to Richard W. Byrne.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Genty, E., Byrne, R.W. Why do gorillas make sequences of gestures?. Anim Cogn 13, 287–301 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-009-0266-4

Download citation

Keywords

  • Great ape
  • Gestural communication
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
  • Interaction regulation