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The First Orangutan Found to Emulate Human Speech

Eight-year-old primate astounds researchers by speaking word-like sounds in a “conversational context.”


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For the first time, an orangutan has shown the ability to mimic human language by speaking word-like sounds in a “conversational context,” indicating voice control that has never before been observed in primates. Rocky, an eight-year-old captive-born orangutan living at the Indianapolis Zoo, astounded researchers from the United Kingdom’s University of Durham, who taught him to communicate verbally using games and rewards. The research team then compared the tone and pitch of Rocky’s vocalizations to more than 12,000 hours of recorded noises made by more than 120 wild and captive orangutans. They concluded that the sounds Rocky made were remarkably unique. “Instead of learning new sounds, it has been presumed that sounds made by great apes are driven by arousal over which they have no control,” lead researcher Adriano Lameria said. “But our research proves that orangutans have the potential capacity to control the action of their voices.”

Photo courtesy of Mark Kaser/University of Durham/PA

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