60-Second Science

Gibbon Call Produced Like Human Soprano Song

A gibbon on helium showed researchers that the two parts of the ape's sound-making apparatus--the larynx and vocal tract--function independently, as in human singing. Sophie Bushwick reports

It’s too bad a gibbon can’t sing in the opera—these apes vocalize with the same techniques that sopranos use to bring down the house. A study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology raised the curtain on gibbons’ voices…with helium. [Hiroki Koda et al., Soprano singing in gibbons]

If you’ve ever inhaled helium, you know that it increases the rate of vibration of the vocal cords—which raises the pitch of your voice too. When researchers let a white-handed gibbon breathe helium-enriched air, the ape’s musical, penetrating call [normal gibbon call] turned into this [helium gibbon call].

As Scientific American’s Kate Wong reported last week, these vocal changes told researchers that the two parts of a gibbon’s sound-making apparatus—the larynx that produces a call and the vocal tract that filters and modifies it—function independently, just like in humans. And the same technique that lets gibbons project their melodious cries through a dense forest also helps operatic sopranos fill a room with sound [singing sound].

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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