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The Gibbon of the Opera

An ability long considered uniquely human—manipulating our vocal mechanism to make loud, beautiful sounds—turns out to have been mastered long ago by apes.
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What does a soprano have in common with an ape?

Sure, it sounds like one of a long line of soprano jokes (presumably with the word “Wagner” in the punch line). But it’s a serious question, with a surprising answer: Their vocal techniques are virtually identical.

New research from Japan reveals the same technique it took Renee Fleming years to master comes quite naturally to a gibbon. An ability we thought of as uniquely human is, in fact, something we share with at least one other species.

“Our speech was thought to have evolved through specific modifications in our vocal anatomy,” said Dr. Takeshi Nishimura of Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute. “However, we’ve shown how the gibbons’ distinctive song uses the same vocal mechanics as soprano singers, revealing a fundamental similarity with humans.”

Gibbons—small, slender, tree-dwelling apes—are “known for their beautiful song,” according to a fact sheet published by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo. “Their loud vocalization can be heard up to one mile away and is used to announce location, defend territory, and maintain bonds with the family unit. The adult pair, sometimes joined by practicing juveniles, sing duets. Each individual can be identified by his or her song.”

Who knew Live From the Met had so much in common with Animal Planet?

These fascinating creatures were the subject of an experiment Nishimura and his colleagues describe in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The researchers recorded 20 gibbon calls in a normal environment, and then 37 calls in a helium-enriched atmosphere.

The song of the gibbon, sans helium

The song of the gibbon, helium-tuned

That’s right, helium: The gas that seems to raise the pitch of our voice. (According to Scientific American, this occurs is because sound travels faster through helium, causing it to resonate with higher-frequency tones. Now you know.)

Aside from amusing adolescents, it turns out helium is also useful for studying animal vocal mechanisms. In this case, it showed that gibbons consciously manipulate their vocal chords and tract to make their unique sounds.

In other words, this research suggests it wasn’t the gibbons’ anatomy that evolved to give them the ability to communicate with one another through the dense jungle foliage. Rather, to better survive (and bond with significant others foraging some distance away), they learned how to make the optimum use of their vocal tract.

So it appears those juvenile gibbons vocalizing with their parents are, in effect, taking music lessons. As the old saying goes, “How do you get heard on the other side of the jungle? Practice, practice, practice.”