Learned vocal and breathing behavior in an enculturated gorilla

Abstract

We describe the repertoire of learned vocal and breathing-related behaviors (VBBs) performed by the enculturated gorilla Koko. We examined a large video corpus of Koko and observed 439 VBBs spread across 161 bouts. Our analysis shows that Koko exercises voluntary control over the performance of nine distinctive VBBs, which involve variable coordination of her breathing, larynx, and supralaryngeal articulators like the tongue and lips. Each of these behaviors is performed in the context of particular manual action routines and gestures. Based on these and other findings, we suggest that vocal learning and the ability to exercise volitional control over vocalization, particularly in a multimodal context, might have figured relatively early into the evolution of language, with some rudimentary capacity in place at the time of our last common ancestor with great apes.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We limit our review of the literature to primates, but there is of course extensive and highly relevant research on vocal abilities in non-primate species too, including cetaceans, pinnipeds, and birds, among others (e.g., Janik and Slater 1997; Marler 2000; Schusterman 2008).

  2. 2.

    Her production of voicing specifically when performing talk on phone and when vocalizing into an object tip, often referred to as her microphone, hints at the possibility that Koko is doing her “imitation” of human speech.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to videographer Dr. Ronald Cohn and the Gorilla Foundation for providing the video on which this article is based, and for their permission to post the video clips in Supplementary Information. We are also grateful to Katarina Noelle for her assistance with the research.

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Correspondence to Marcus Perlman.

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All applicable national guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All the procedures performed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted.

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The authors of the article relied on certain information and materials made available by The Gorilla Foundation. The authors are solely responsible for the content of the article, and the article shall not constitute any representation by The Gorilla Foundation that the data presented therein are correct or sufficient to support the conclusions reached.

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Perlman, M., Clark, N. Learned vocal and breathing behavior in an enculturated gorilla. Anim Cogn 18, 1165–1179 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-015-0889-6

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Keywords

  • Breath control
  • Gorilla
  • Koko
  • Multimodal communication
  • Primate vocalization
  • Vocal learning