Orangutan Language

The alarm calls of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra have been studied and the research has made some interesting discoveries.

Scientists from the University of Warwick studied 70 orangutans from 2005 to 2010 with over 6000 hours recording their alarm calls.

Orangutan ‘slang’

A broad spectrum of orangutan groups was recorded. Some were part of large groups, others lived in smaller groups. In the larger groups new sounding calls were used then quickly dropped. The researchers likened this to the way humans use slang phrases that go out of fashion. Orangutans within smaller groups came up with new calls less frequently but when they did, they were used for longer and were less likely to be dropped.

The researchers noted that within smaller groups their alarm calls were gradually added to. Whereas with larger groups, that were naturally noisier due to the number of orangutans communicating, they found that some individuals tried to stand out from the others. These orangutans tried to show off and come up with new calls, but they weren’t always adopted by the group.

Language development

The research drew conclusions that orangutan language is more changeable than previously thought. Scientists had thought that the same calls were used throughout an orangutan’s life. However, the latest study shows that calls are subject to change depending on whether a group adopts a new sound or not. Their communication is shaped by each other which is much the same as how language develops within human culture. We adopt and reject new phrases continuously.

These studies help us understand how our own language would have developed with primitive man. The researchers within this project stated that being able to study primates in the wild in their natural habitat is key to research for so many reasons and we must do everything we can to conserve them and their environment.

If you would like to find out more on orangutan conservation, please visit our Adopt an Orangutan page.

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