RESEARCH: Orangutans know how to make a musical beat

Orangutans know how to make a musical beat, using two sounds at the same time, like a beatboxer, say animal researchers in a new study.

New Scientist magazine (27 June 2023) reported on a new study of two separate groups of Orangutans. The findings show that they were making calls that use two sounds simultaneously. 

Bornean Orangutan

Adriano Lameira at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, and his colleagues, recorded two groups of Orangutans in two different locations in the jungles of Indonesia, their natural habitat, collecting 3,800 hours of sounds and noises. 

There are three species of Orangutans. They are all primate mammals in the Hominidae family of great apes, and they are all found in the rainforests of south-east Asia. There are the Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) in the island of Borneo and West Kalimantan in Indonesia, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) in western Indonesia, and the Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in South Tapanuli in the island of Sumatra in Indoesia. 

The study followed two groups – the Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii).

The researchers found that the Orangutans were producing vowel and consonant sounds at the same time, which is a very complex action, even for humans to do. 

The female Orangutans in Sumatra simultaneously make consonant-like kissing sounds and vowel-like hu-hooing sounds to warn their group if predators are nearby. 

The male Orangutans in Borneo simultaneously make both mouth-chomping and guttural grumble sounds that come from the larynx. 

Adriano Lameira said that the sounds are striking and complex, comparing them to ‘beatboxing’ sounds that people make. This is called bi-phonation. Beatboxing is a form of vocal percussions, where humans mimic drum machine sounds, or other musical instruments, using only their mouth, lips, tongue, and voice. 

Adriano Lameira said that the both Orangutan groups, separate and far from each other, use bi-phonations. 

Songbirds also use bi-phonic techniques, but birds are very different from humans, and apes are more like humans, so scientists think that studying the great apes can help them better understand how humans evolved their complex speaking abilities. The Orangutans may help humans learn about how we developed vocal communications – i.e., why humans speak in a different way to animals. 

Bornean Orangutan
Bornean Orangutan
Bornean Orangutan
Bornean Orangutan

Journal reference: PNAS Nexus DOI: 10.1093/pnasnexus/pgad182

Location of photographs: Paris Zoo, France

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.