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Nom-nom or dinner call? Silverbacks sing as they eat.

Dominant wild silverbacks wax musical with their mouths full.

Image source: Grant Tiffen/Shutterstock
  • Recent recordings of gorillas singing as they eat add the species to a lengthening list of musical eaters in the animal kingdom.
  • Two types of songs have been recorded: a hum, and, well, gorilla improv.
  • It's suspected that spoken language may begin with songs.

Sing for your supper, and you'll get breakfast
Songbirds always eat — Moss Hart, The Boys from Syracuse, 1938

Gorillas, too, apparently. Primatologist Eva Luef of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany recently observed — and recorded — two wild western lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo singing as they ate. The late primatologist Dian Fossey previously described the phenomenon as "belch vocalizations," which sounds about right, especially after our recent Thanksgiving. The new research, however, for the first time ties it to specific behaviors. Luef's finding are published in PLOS ONE.

Gorillas are hardly alone in song: They join other musical species such as chimps, bonobos, frogs, and giraffes. Still Luef's work may offer up some intriguing clues into the origin of language.

Leuf actually caught two type of vocalizations in the dominant silverback blackback adolescent males she observed. It seems that in the wild, they're the only community members with singing rights. In wild primate cultures with less rigid hierarchies, notably chimps and bonobos, everybody gets to chime in at mealtime.

Though in captivity things are a bit different, Ali Vella-Irving of the Toronto Zoo is hardly surprised by Leuf's discovery, she tells New Scientist. She hears this kind of singing all the time. "Each gorilla has its own voice: you can really tell who's singing. And if it's their favorite food, they sing louder."

This jibes with what Luef found: The gorillas seem to be inspired only by their preferred food. She found that "aquatic vegetation or seeds elicited a lot of food calls. And… they never called when they were eating insects like termites or ants." Because of course.

Hummmm...

One of Leuf's silverbacks emitted a low-frequency hum as he ate. The scientist hypothesizes two possible meanings for the hum. First, it sounds like a noise of satisfaction. Secondly, says Leuf, since "He's the one making the collective decisions for the group. We think he uses this vocalization to inform the others 'OK, now we're eating.'" Others have suggested it may mean, "Go away, I'm eating here."

Singing the praises of a meal

Another silverback was more improvisatory, singing higher in pitch, and continually giving voice to a series of melodies that didn't repeat. The suspicion is that this ever-evolving ditty was simply a happy tune accompanying happy eating.

Speak Up

The variety of songs and the individuals allowed to sing them among different species provides further insight into the way language incorporating visual signals and sounds may evolve. Earlier research suggests that songs may represent a precursor of our spoken language.These variations also provide clues into each species' social structures, as psychologist Zanna Clay explains: "We think food calls are a very social signal; it's about coordinating feeding events with others. So in gorillas you get the dominant male producing the calls, because he has to keep hold of all the females in his group."

If music is a universal language as is often claimed, does this finding suggest "nom-nom" is a universal song?

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Jupiter's moon Europa has a huge ocean beneath its sheets of ice.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
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Jordan Klepper: Comedians vs. the apocalypse

Watch The Daily Show comedian Jordan Klepper and elite improviser Bob Kulhan live.

Big Think LIVE

These days, if you don't laugh, you might just scream. Enter comedian and The Daily Show regular Jordan Klepper!

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Supporting climate science increases skepticism of out-groups

A study finds people are more influenced by what the other party says than their own. What gives?

Protesters demanding action against climate change

Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study has found evidence suggesting that conservative climate skepticism is driven by reactions to liberal support for science.
  • This was determined both by comparing polling data to records of cues given by leaders, and through a survey.
  • The findings could lead to new methods of influencing public opinion.
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What is counterfactual thinking?

Can thinking about the past really help us create a better present and future?

Jacob Lund / Shutterstock
Personal Growth
  • There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward.
  • Both upward and downward counterfactual thinking can be positive impacts on your current outlook - however, upward counterfactual thinking has been linked with depression.
  • While counterfactual thinking is a very normal and natural process, experts suggest the best course is to focus on the present and future and allow counterfactual thinking to act as a motivator when possible.
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