Rethinking Healthcare

Listen as apes on helium sing like humans

Listen as apes on helium sing like humans

Posting in Technology

Helium-infused calls show that we're not the only primates capable of complicated speech production.

You've heard the phrase "She sings like a bird," but I'll bet you've never heard the remark, "She sings like an ape." That may now be a complement, according to new study from Japanese researchers.

Their report this month in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology finds that gibbons, the southeast Asian primate, vocalize in a very similar way to classically-trained human sopranos, when exposed to helium gas.

You can hear what that sounds like here.

(Compare it to a gibbon's normal call here.)

The researchers first recorded those normal gibbon calls, then recorded their singing in a helium-infused room. The scientists noted that the apes make their distinctive sound by consciously manipulating their vocal cords and vocal tract.

"The lowest frequency of harmonics is amplified in a gibbon's song when performed in normal air," said the lead author in a press statement. "However, in a helium-enriched atmosphere the tuning of the vocal cord vibration and the resonance of the vocal tract are altered as the gas causes an upward shift of the resonance frequencies."

The press statement continues:

This supports the theory that, as with humans, there is independence between the origin of the sound and the vocal tools used to manipulate it.

This shows that gibbons use the same process for producing speech as humans, whereby acoustic sound originates from the larynx and is controlled by a filter, determined by the shape of the supralaryngeal vocal tract. This manipulation forms speech and is known as the 'source-filter' process of speech production.

Singing gibbons use the same complicated vocal techniques usually only heard in humans in professional soprano singers.

So what's the point?

These findings suggest that our complex vocal abilities are not unique to human evolution. We share the physical capacity for speech with other primates -- which isolates our intellect, and not our vocal cords, as the primary bestower of our gift of gab.

Photo: Thomas Tolkien/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure