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Gorillas can differentiate human voices

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Researcher Roberta Salmi and her colleagues at the University of Georgia’s Primate Behavioral Ecology Laboratory have shown for the first time that gorillas are able to recognize familiar human voices and associate them with pleasant and unpleasant memories.

The study

Their observations show that gorillas at the Atlanta Zoo react negatively when they hear the voices of people they don’t know or have had negative interactions with.

The reaction of the great apes seems to indicate, according to the researchers, that they associated the voices with certain individuals based on the nature of their relationship with them.

This study was carried out with gorillas that live in captivity, but may well be confirmed in wild animals.

I’ve worked with wild gorillas a lot, and one of the problems is that through the process of getting used to our presence we can also make them less fearful of hunters, as they get used to seeing and hearing. humans, explains in a press release Roberta Salmi, whose work is published in the journal Animal Cognition (New window) (in English).

If wild gorillas are able to distinguish between people who behave differently … I would sleep better knowing that researchers do not make gorillas more vulnerable to hunters.

A quote from Roberta salmi

Animals that recognize voices

Several animal species are able to recognize and differentiate the vocalizations of members of their species. Some can also differentiate and include those of other species.

In nature, we know that some monkeys form specific associations with individuals of other species. It’s a survival strategy. If a monkey hears and recognizes distress calls from a known individual, he knows something is wrong and must take cover to escape danger., explains the primatologist.

Already, research has shown that dogs and cats distinguish between their master’s voice and that of others. They can even detect tone changes when scolded and act accordingly.

Other animals that are close to humans, such as crows, pigeons, and even elephants, can differentiate voices they are familiar with from those they don’t know.

These studies suggest that the ability to differentiate voices and assess the level of threat may be important for animals that are increasingly exposed to humans. But it’s a little more difficult to know if wild animals are able to recognize humans individually.

Roberta Salmi’s team wanted to know if gorillas were capable of it too. To get there, she observed the group of 12 gorillas that live at the Atlanta Zoo, 4 females and 8 males.

The researchers had already noticed that the members of the clan reacted negatively to the presence of certain people who entered their enclosure, in particular the vets and a maintenance worker. However, she was unsure whether the zoo residents reacted only to the sight of these people or whether their voices were also taken into account.

To establish this, the team played the great apes to audio recordings of three groups over a period of six months:

  • their caretakers who have worked with them for at least four years and maintain a positive relationship with them;
  • people that great apes know well but have negative interactions with, including veterinarians and the cleaner;
  • people who have no relation to them and who do not know animals.

All the participants said the same sentence, Hello. Hi!, which is how the keepers of this zoo usually greet gorillas.

The gorillas had little reaction to hearing the voices of their guardians. However, when they heard the voices of people they did not know or with whom they had had negative experiences, gorillas responded with vocalizations and distress signals, as if to signify increased vigilance.

: If there is a sound that sounds threatening or unfamiliar, they (the gorillas) stop what they are doing and focus their attention. This is something we do too. If it’s not a threatening sound, I’ll just go about my business. If I hear that there is someone in my house, I immediately stop what I’m doing to hear what’s going on! “,” Text “:” One of the first things we observed is happening also in nature: If there is a sound that seems threatening or unfamiliar, they (the gorillas) stop what they are doing and focus their attention. This is something we do too. If it’s not a threatening sound, I’ll just go about my business. If I hear that there is someone in my house, I immediately stop what I’m doing to hear what’s going on! “}}”>One of the first things we observed also occurs in nature: if there is a sound that seems threatening or unfamiliar, they [les gorilles] stop what they are doing and focus their attention. This is something we do too. If it’s not a threatening sound, I’ll just go about my business. If I hear that there is someone in my house, I immediately stop what I am doing to hear what is going on! observes the researcher.

It’s a bit the same for gorillas. After hearing unfamiliar voices or voices from people they had interacted with negatively, the monkeys ceased their activities and began looking in the direction of the sound to assess whether the voices posed a threat., concludes Ms. Salmi.

This work could not determine whether gorillas viewed strangers as as threatening as vets and the cleaner.

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