Serge Wich says orangutan whistle may provide clues to human speech

Bonnie, an orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., has an unusual skill: She can whistle. Bonnie spontaneously began whistling after hearing a caretaker whistle. This surprised Serge Wich, a scientist at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa. He thinks Bonnie’s whistling could provide clues about the evolution of human speech.

Serge Wich: Certain aspects of human language can be traced back to [certain aspects of] ape and monkey communication.

Wich said what’s so interesting about Bonnie’s whistling is that she learned to do it without being taught. Orangutans have been known to mimic humans’ physical gestures, but Wich didn’t think they could replicate our calls.

Scientists now know these calls are nuanced and specific to populations, but they’re unsure about the extent of primates’ vocal control. Wich plans to learn more by teaching orangutans sounds and vocalizations.

Serge Wich: It’s one little component of something that might have evolved into human language.

Our thanks to:
Serge Wich
Great Ape Trust of Iowa
Des Moines, Iowa

October 26, 2009

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