He may not look like it, but this ape can hit some great notes. (Photo : Wikimedia Commons/Derek Ramsey)
What do white-handed gibbons and opera singers have in common? Well, they both use the same techniques when projecting their voice.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Takeshi Nishimura from the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan studied the white-handed gibbons at Fukuchiyama City Zoo and published their findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
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"The complexity of human speech is unique among primates as it requires varied soft sounds made by the rapid movements of vocal tracts," said Dr. Nishimura.
"Our speech was thought to have evolved through specific modifications in our vocal anatomy. However, we've shown how the gibbons' distinctive song uses the same vocal mechanics as soprano singers, revealing a fundamental similarity with humans."
Gibbons use loud calls that can be heard as far away as two miles to communicate with neighbors, strangers, and potential mates through the thick jungle that often impairs visibility.
How did the researchers study the calls? By giving the apes a healthy dose of helium of course.
Helium is useful in studying vocal patters because it increases the resonance frequencies and sound velocity.
"The lowest frequency of harmonics is amplified in a gibbon's song when performed in normal air," said Dr. Nishimura. "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."
This indicates that the origin of the vocal sound is different than the vocal tool used to manipulate it - just like humans.
These gibbons, it seems, are incredibly talented.
"This is the first evidence that gibbons always sing using soprano techniques, a difficult vocalization ability for humans which is only mastered by professional opera singers," Dr. Nishimura stated.
If you would like to listen to the Gibbon opera calls, here they are:
Gibbon without helium: http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/46693.php?from=219331
Gibbon with helium: http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/46694.php?from=219331