Chimps Learn New Language When They Change Locale

BY ALAN BOYLE In a novel example of vocal learning, chimpanzees picked up what might be…

Georgia (Feb 6, 2015)

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In a novel example of vocal learning, chimpanzees picked up what might be considered the equivalent of a Scottish accent after they were moved from a Dutch zoo to Edinburgh.

"It's the first time we've seen another primate species — not humans — change the structure of the call that they gave for a specific object by soclally learning it," University of York psychologist Katie Slocombe told NBC News. Slocombe and her colleagues reported the phenomenon Thursday in the journal Current Biology. …

The long tale of chimp communication

Previous studies have shown that chimps are quite capable of social learning when it comes to communication. "The results reported here are not surprising in light of these previous findings," Jared Taglialatela, a primate researcher at Kennesaw State University who led one of those studies, told NBC News in an email.

Taglialatela said this week's report provides a clearer picture of how chimps change their call structure, and how long the process takes. However, he'd like to see more evidence that the Dutch chimps have thoroughly learned their language lesson.

"Imagine hearing a vocalization and thinking to yourself, 'That is the sound I hear others, or I myself, make when I am eating apples.' You can test this by presenting calls to a chimpanzee and then, for example, seeing if they will go to the 'apple' tree. Thus, the sounds are functionally referential," he explained. "This is what some of the researchers had previously done. But for this study, they did not take the new apple sound produced by some of the chimpanzees and test them to see if they could identify the new sound as 'apple.'"

Taglialatela said "this seems like a key bit of data that is needed."

In addition to Slocombe and Townsend, the authors of "Vocal Learning in the Functionally Referential Food Grunts of Chimpanzees" include Stuart Watson, Anne Schel, Claudia Wilke, Emma Wallace, Leveda Cheng and Victoria West.


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