Apes May Be Closer to Speaking Than We Thought

Koko the gorilla can produce nine distinct vocalization and breathing behaviors
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 14, 2015 4:11 PM CDT
Apes May Be Closer to Speaking Than We Thought
Baby gorilla Jengo relaxes in the arms of his mother Kibara at the zoo in Leipzig, Germany, Thursday, March 20, 2014. The baby gorilla was born on Dec. 2, 2013.   (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Researchers have long assumed that speaking is an impossibility for apes because they can't properly control their vocalizations or their breathing. But now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin is reporting in the journal Animal Cognition that apes may in fact be closer to talking than we thought. Marcus Perlman and colleagues reached this conclusion after watching 71 hours of 40-year-old gorilla Koko, best known for learning American Sign Language, as she interacts with researchers. They discovered that she repeatedly performs nine different behaviors assumed to be outside the ability of apes, including blowing her nose into a tissue, playing wind instruments, huffing moisture onto glass before cleaning it, chattering into a telephone, and coughing on command.

"She doesn't produce a pretty, periodic sound when she performs these behaviors, like we do when we speak," Perlman says. "But she can control her larynx enough to produce a controlled grunting sound." This discovery may throw a wrench in the theory that speech evolved only in humans since we were last linked to chimpanzees. Koko's specific behaviors "aren't proof of her exceptionality, just her potential given the right set of circumstances—in this case 40 years of immersion in a mostly human world," reports UPI. "Koko bridges a gap," Perlman says. "It's not as fine as human control, but it is certainly control." (See how humans have been raising this baby gorilla.)

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