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Male white-handed gibbons flexibly time duet contributions


Vocal duetting occurs when two individuals produce repeated, stereotyped vocalizations, often with alternating contributions. It evolved independently in many pair living taxa. Among hominoids, only hylobatids duet, but little is known about how mated pairs coordinate singing and if individuals adjust their song to spectral and temporal aspects of another’s song. If they do, this would demonstrate vocal flexibility not yet well documented in apes. To test this hypothesis, we analyzed duets of wild white-handed gibbons (Hylobates lar), quantifying female notes and the timing of male notes relative to them. We measured changes in female notes that preceded her great call phrase and that she initiated only after her mate had stopped singing. We predicted males would suspend their own song during a female’s great call phrase in anticipation of her climax, and thus should interrupt abnormal female calls, because these typically fail to climax. We compared (1) interrupted great call phrases females aborted, (2) interrupted phrases that were completed, and (3) uninterrupted, completed phrases. We found that abnormal great call phrases were interrupted by males, likely because the male anticipated that the phrase would be abandoned before reaching its climax. Although female call phrases varied in length, we also found that males replied in close synchrony with their ending. Subtle spectral and temporal variations in song influenced the timing of a mate’s singing and thus the structure and delivery of duets. Although ape vocal behavior is thought to be largely innate, our findings show unexpected flexibility in song expression.

Significance statement

Vocal duets by mated pairs occur in many animal species but only in one ape family, the hylobatids (gibbons and siamang). Although gibbon duetting has been described for many species, little is still known about how partners coordinate singing. We show that individuals rapidly and flexibly adjust their song in direct response to changes in a mate’s singing. This coordinated adjustment to a mate’s ongoing singing likely allows for precise turn-taking during duets, which centers around the female great call phrase, and especially its climax notes. Although vocalizations of nonhuman apes are thought to be largely developmentally fixed, this plasticity suggests that turn-taking duets may be an exception. Turn-taking duetting requires gibbons to adjust their singing to that of the partner, perhaps similar to vocal exchange behaviors that contributed to increased flexibility in the precursors of speech.

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Thanks to the Nacey Maggioncalda Foundation for a Goldberg Research Grant to Thomas Terleph and to the National Research Council of Thailand for research permits and the Department of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation for park permits. We also thank Dr. David Watts and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.


This study was funded by a Goldberg Research Grant, Nacey Maggioncalda Foundation to TAT.

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Correspondence to Thomas A. Terleph.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Research permits were issued by the National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT) and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) of Thailand, and the research protocol was approved by the Institutional Animal Care Committees of Sacred Heart University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which adhere to the American Society of Primatologists Principles for the Ethical Treatment of Non-Human Primates. All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

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Communicated by D. P. Watts

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Terleph, T.A., Malaivijitnond, S. & Reichard, U.H. Male white-handed gibbons flexibly time duet contributions. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72, 16 (2018).

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  • Duetting
  • Gibbons
  • Song
  • Ape communication
  • Turn-taking
  • Vocal plasticity