Gorillas Showing Patterns Of Early Speech, Array Of Vocal Control Foretells Potential Communicative Behaviors

The ability of gorillas to communicate with humans has been the focal point of studies for quite some time, typically explored through sign language or other visual means. A new study on Koko the ape reveals that gorillas are capable of speech, although not nearly as complex as humans, but it may signify the beginnings of early speech evolution in progress.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have studied Koko and her means of communication, realizing that she began to display nine behaviors that required integral control over vocalization and breathing, according to Metro. Each behavior was thought to have been out of a gorilla’s physical abilities. Marcus Perlman shared his observation.

“She doesn’t produce a pretty, periodic sound when she performs these behaviours, like we do when we speak. But she can control her larynx enough to produce a controlled grunting sound. Koko bridges a gap. She shows the potential under the right environment conditions for apes to develop quite a bit of flexible control over their vocal tract. It’s not as fine as human control, but it is certainly control.”

The observation of Koko’s vocal skills was discovered after viewing and analyzing over 71 hours of footage. Admittedly, her vocal abilities are suspected to be learned from the constant interaction with her human researchers rather. However, Perlman states that her abilities are not assumed to be unique to Koko, according to the Huffington Post.

“Presumably, she is no more gifted than other gorillas. The difference is just her environmental circumstances. You obviously don’t see things like this in wild populations.”

Previous to the discovery of Koko’s vocal talents, it was believed that gorillas could not control their vocalization and breathing to create specific sounds, leading to a limited array of calls that were used to communicate with others, mostly to signify danger, food, or moods.

Individuals worried that communication between apes will bring forth a “Planet of the Apes” scenario in the future should not be too concerned. Perlman shared that the communicative abilities are amazing, but represent an early beginning in speech evolution for apes.

“The groundwork is there for apes to learn new communicative behaviors… and they appear to have some ability to transmit these behaviors through social learning and even transmit the behaviors across generations. Perhaps this capacity evolved over millions of years into the human ability to speak.”

[Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images]