Captive Gorillas Have Developed A Specific Way To Communicate With Their Human Captors

If there’s an upside to the sad fact that animals have been kept in captivity for generations, it’s all of the interesting ways they’ve evolved in order to thrive inside our human world.

Gorillas, of course, seem a bit human to start with, so maybe it’s not such a surprise that they’ve figured out a way to specifically get the attention of the humans in charge of their health and well being.

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Zookeepers have found that captive gorillas use a unique vocalization when communicating with the humans who care for them – a sound like “snough!” – and they never use the same noise when interacting with other gorillas.

A new study on the matter concluded that the practice indicates gorillas are capable of vocal learning and innovation.

Scientists already knew that apes like chimps and orangutans invent knew sounds when they encounter completely novel situations – chimps, for example, blow raspberries at their human handles while orangutans prefer whistling.

In the case of the gorillas, researchers used an experiment to find out whether or not the ability shows up in the western gorillas housed at Zoo Atlanta, too. There, they observed six female and two male gorillas in three different scenarios.

In the first, the gorillas were within a meter of a familiar zookeeper. In the second, they were near a bucket of grapes. In the third, the zookeeper was holding the grapes.

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To no one’s surprise they “spoke” most often when the trusted zookeeper was holding the food, and sure enough, made the attention-getting (AG) ‘snough’ sound.

Four of the right gorillas used the noise to get the zookeepers attention, and represented around 85% of all vocalizations during the experiment.

“In our study, the AG call was never used by captive gorillas when communicating with one another, supporting the idea that it is a novel sound not part of the typical gorilla-gorilla communication repertoire and that it emerged to address the communicative need of attracting human attention in captive settings.”

The same researchers reached out to facilities across the US and Canada, hoping to increase their pool of information. They received word back that the same call was being used by 33 gorillas at 11 different zoos, but after analyzing the sounds, it was determined that only around 40% of captive western gorillas are using the exact same vocalization.

“The AG call is likely not as common as the more prominent raspberry call used by captive chimpanzees, which may indicate that zoo gorillas only recently adopted this sound for the purpose of getting the attention of humans.”

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Interestingly, it’s also used most often by groups of related gorillas, suggesting the behavior may be learned or intentionally taught.

“Whether the AG call has emerged randomly or has been learnt/modelled by observing humans…remains unknown.”

It’s always a bit disconcerting to face the idea that these apes are really so much like us, and in this case, that fact seems impossible to ignore.

What are your thoughts on this update? On zoos in general? Let’s get real down in the comments!