The Loh Down On Science

Opera for Apes

It ain’t over ‘till the monkey sings? Or, at least, the ape?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Gibbons are small apes native to Asia’s noisy jungles. To locate each other, gibbons have to be loud. So … they sing! In pure tones audible a mile away. That got primatologists at Japan’s Kyoto University curious. Do gibbons control their voices, like opera singers?

To find out, they placed a gibbon from the Kyoto zoo in a chamber, and recorded her calls.
They then added helium to the chamber. As every balloon-sucking fourth-grader knows, helium makes voices sound high and thin. It's because helium is lighter than oxygen. Higher frequencies travel through it faster. So when they compared the gibbon's normal calls to her balloon-voiced ones?

They found that, to compensate for the helium effect, the gibbon manipulated her mouth and vocal tract. Projecting! Just like a soprano!

The study indicates that humans are maybe not unique in the vocal abilities needed for speech.

Even more telling, the gibbon then demanded a bigger dressing room and complained about the tenor. Just kidding!  Even though she wasn’t.

<em>The Loh Down on Science</em> is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena, California. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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