In an extraordinary case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’, a female orangutan at Cologne Zoo, Germany, has begun to mimic human speech in order to get the attention of her keepers.
The orangutan, named Tilda, was born in the wilds of Borneo in the 1960s before being captured at the age of two. She has been seen carrying out human-like actions in the past, such as whistling, waving her arms and clapping her hands, possibly as a result of being trained for entertainment by previous owners. Now, Tilda has taken this one step further and started to mimic those who care for her.
Video and audio files released by an international primate research team show the orangutan making impressively human-like noises. The idea that she was directly trying to communicate came to light when it was discovered that she produced her clicking noises and faux-speech only when faced with her keepers during feeding time. Fine and rapid control over her lip and tongue movements is to thank for this ability – one that was previously thought to be unique to humans.
“Our findings demonstrate that, not only do certain great ape calls primarily resemble consonants and others vowels, but orangutans can actually learn these calls from humans, and produce these calls at the same speed at which humans do too,” says Dr Adriano Lameira at the University of Amsterdam. “Humans characteristically produce five consonants and five vowels per second while speaking. These are striking parallels that are impossible to ignore, and show us how the first human languages may have looked and sounded.”
So if they can learn how to imitate sounds, is it possible that we may one day be able to converse with our primate cousins? “Anything that will resemble a word will have to be a call combination or sequence,” explains Adriano. “In this sense, I do believe that sometime in the future we could learn how to teach great apes to produce call combinations that resemble words.”
In Disney’s classic movie The Jungle Book, an orangutan by the name of King Louie sings: “An ape like me can learn to be human too”. It seems that Tilda has accepted the challenge.