Believe it or Not: Chimps Are Polyglots

Every animal has its own way of ’talking’ with each other.  There’s an inter-species communication system that connects one animal to its own species. Is this true? A research team has done a study to this effect.

The Research

 In the case of  chimpanzees, they have their own specific food-grunts. They can adjust their food grunts to understand each other. They know how to shift from their own language to that of recent found friends. They are polyglots, if I may so.  

 A research team led by Dr Simon Townsend from the University of Zurich, placed two chimps from different groups inside a cage in the Edinburgh Zoo. They discovered that the chimps can change their preferred grunts to that of their new companions.

  “Our study shows that chimpanzee referential food calls are not fixed in their structure and that, when exposed to a new social group, chimpanzees can change their calls to sound more like their group mates,” said Dr Katie Slocombe from the University of York, the senior author of a paper published in the journal Current Biology.

It was highly believed by scientists that chimp’s acoustic structures was permanent. It’s fixed for that matter. Changes only happens when they are sexually aroused.

Dr Townsend, Dr Slocombe and their colleagues discovered that this is not true. The preferred grunts of the two chimps later merged and individual food choices has nothing to do with it.

Using audio analysis, the scientists were able to show the convergence of the structure and even without the device they can still tell the difference.

“We think it’s quite easy to hear how the two groups called in different ways for apples in 2010, and how by 2013 the Dutch individuals changed their grunts to sound more like Edinburgh individuals,” said co-author Dr Stuart Watson, also from the University of York.

The study provides the first evidence of non-human animals actively modifying and socially learning the structure of a meaningful referential vocalization from other members of their species.

The evolutionary stage that separates man from chimpanzees is not that long. It is only separated by 5 to 7 million years which is not that long.



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