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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the staff at Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park for their excellent support and in particular Lisa Stevens and Mark Zajac. This research was supported in part by the David Bohnett Foundation. This research adhered to the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour/Animal Behaviour Society Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Research and the legal requirements of the country in which the work was carried out and all institutional guidelines. Two anonymous reviewers and Dr. Nishida gave valuable suggestions on earlier versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Serge A. Wich.

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Wich, S.A., Swartz, K.B., Hardus, M.E. et al. A case of spontaneous acquisition of a human sound by an orangutan. Primates 50, 56–64 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10329-008-0117-y

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Keywords

  • Vocal learning
  • Great apes
  • Imitation