Subscribe

How to get a Dutch chimp to speak with a Scottish accent (+video)

After zookeepers at Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo introduced chimpanzees raised in Netherlands to those raised in Scotland, the Dutch chimps began grunting in a new accent.

Zookeepers at Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo began a fascinating social experiment in 2010: They put a group of chimpanzees raised locally in the Netherlands together with a group of chimps raised in Scotland. This kind of chimpanzee-group mixing almost never occurs in the wild.

Like all chimpanzees, the two groups of chimps in the study had special grunts for certain types of food, which change based on their preferences. The Dutch chimps loved apples, and referred to the fruit using a high-pitched grunt, whereas the Scottish chimps disliked apples, and used a much lower-pitched grunt to describe the fruit.

But after three years of living with the Scottish chimps, the Dutch chimps did something that surprised the researchers: They started using the low-pitched grunt to refer to apples. The new grunts suggested that the Dutch group had learned the word from the Scottish chimps, according to the study, published today (Feb. 5) in the journal Current Biology. [Listen to chimps learning other groups' grunts]

Grunt work

Besides humans, a number of other primates are capable of vocal communication. For example, vervet monkeys have alarm calls to warn of specific predators, such as eagles and leopards. And chimps' grunts share some similarities with human words, said study researcher Katie Slocombe, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of York in England.

But until now, scientists had considered this ability — to learn the names for objects in an environment from peers — unique to human speech, Slocombe said.

"Our study is the first one to show that chimps do have some control over the structure of these food grunts," Slocombe told Live Science. "When exposed to a different social culture, they can choose to shift the structure of their calls to conform and give a different grunt." The chimps changed their grunts independently of their food preferences, Slocombe added.

Social learners

Other researchers praised the results, but didn't find them particularly surprising.

"This study is consistent with a number of relatively recent studies that have suggested that social learning plays a role in some chimpanzee vocalizations," said Jared Taglialatela, a biologist atKennesaw State University in Georgia who studies ape communication but was not involved in the current research.

For example, Taglialatela and his colleagues have found evidence that young chimps learn to make attention-getting sounds from their mothers.

Though the new findings suggest that learning plays a role in some chimp vocalizations, the researchers did not specifically test whether the calls were functionally referential, meaning that other chimps understood what the call, such as the grunt for "apple," meant, Taglialatela told Live Science. "You can test this by presenting calls to a chimpanzee and then, for example, seeing if they will go to the 'apple' tree," he said.

Nevertheless, Frans de Waal, a primatologistat the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, who wasn't involved in this new study, called it "one of many findings we have lately showing how much of primate social life is culturally constructed."

Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter. Follow us @livescienceFacebook Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome
 
 
Make a Difference
Inspired? Here are some ways to make a difference on this issue.
FREE Newsletters
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.
 

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK