As a critical aspect of language, vocal learning is extremely rare in animals, having only been described in a few distantly related species.
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New evidence, however, extends vocal learning/innovation to the primate order, with zoo-housed chimpanzees and orangutans producing novel vocal signals to attract the attention of familiar human caregivers, Roberta Salmi, Monica Szczupider, and Jodi Carrigan wrote in their research.
"If the ability to produce novel vocalizations as a means of navigating evolutionarily novel circumstances spans the Hominidae family, then we can expect to find evidence for it in the family’s third genus, Gorilla.
"To explore this possibility, we conduct an experiment with eight gorillas from Zoo Atlanta to examine whether they use species-atypical vocalizations to get the attention of humans across three different conditions: just a human, just food, or a human holding food.
"Additionally, we survey gorilla keepers from other AZA-member zoos to compile a list of common attention-getting signals used by the gorillas in their care.
"Our experiment results indicated that Zoo Atlanta gorillas vocalized most often during the human-food condition, with the most frequently used vocal signal being a species-atypical sound somewhere between a sneeze and a cough (n = 28).
"This previously undescribed sound is acoustically different from other calls commonly produced during feeding (i.e., single grunts and food-associated calls).
"Our survey and analyses of recordings from other zoos confirmed that this novel attention-getting sound is not unique to Zoo Atlanta, although further work should be done to better determine the extent and patterns of transmission and/or potential independent innovation of this sound across captive gorilla populations.
"These findings represent one of the few pieces of evidence of spontaneous novel vocal production in non-enculturated individuals of this species, supporting the inclusion of great apes as moderate vocal learners and perhaps demonstrating an evolutionary function to a flexible vocal repertoire." ■