How to get a Dutch chimp to speak with a Scottish accent

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.

Jamie Norris
Louis, one of the Edinburgh chimps, begrudgingly eats an apple.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How to get a Dutch chimp to speak with a Scottish accent
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today