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Surprising Science

Chimpanzees Can Learn New “Words” from New Companions

A study of various chimps housed together in Edinburgh reveals that the apes alter their grunts to better communicate with new neighbors.

As Jonathan Webb writes in this BBC News story, scientists seeking to learn more about human communication will sometimes focus their studies on our close biological relatives. In the case of a recent two-year study in Edinburgh, researchers examined chimpanzees and their relative abilities to adopt new words (or rather, grunts) from new companions. To do this, the scientists introduced a new group of chimps from the Netherlands into a small community based in Edinburgh:

“The Edinburgh chimps were not especially partial to apples and used a low-pitched grunt to refer to them; the Dutch newcomers, on the other hand, ‘really loved apples and gave much higher-pitched calls.’

By 2013 however, the groups were getting on famously. There were firm Scottish-Dutch friendships and the chimps had essentially formed one big group of 18.

Along with that social bonding, there had been a remarkable shift in one key aspect of their communication: ‘The Dutch chimps had actually adopted the Edinburgh call for apples.’

What is more, this had happened without any shift in preferences. The Dutch animals were still much more partial to apples than their Edinburgh-raised companions.”

Webb writes that this is the first time scientists have witnessed such flexibility in an established primate referential call. The researchers are still contemplating the exact meaning of this discovery. Did the Dutch chimps adopt the Scottish “accent” to better fit in? Were they subconsciously picking up new grunts?

Either way, says Webb, the scientists were very impressed by the chimps’ capacity for this advanced level of vocal learning. This new knowledge could serve as a springboard toward further studies on the nature of primate social networks and, by proxy, how humans communicate as well. For now, we’ll just content ourselves with the fun image of chimps with Scottish accents.

Read more at BBC News.

Photo credit: Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock


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