Yellow-cheeked gibbons singing
A pair of yellow-cheeked gibbons perform their incredible duet song. The male takes the lead with the female joining for an intense ‘great call’ after approximately one minute.
Gibbons, primates designated ‘lesser apes’, are primarily differentiated from the great apes – bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans – by their smaller size. Also unlike the majority of great apes, gibbons commonly pair-bond for life.
Read on to learn more about gibbon vocalizations:
Why do gibbons sing?
Male/female pairs within certain gibbon species may duet together: singing isochronously by “synchronis[ing their] notes in rhythmic patterns”. (Indris, a type of lemur – a non-ape primate – shares the capacity to do this.)
These duets demarcate the territory under the pair or their group’s control, as well as displaying the pair’s relationship (a robust bond being beneficial for defense of territory). Such songs are distinctive enough to allow the identification of the species making them – and even the area from which they originate.
Other specific calls relate to the presence of particular predators; context-specificity of this type in non-human primates presents “clues [as] to the evolutionary roots of […] language”, including the possibility of a shared primate ancestor which was also capable of context-specific calling.
How do gibbons sing?
In some gibbon species (such as the siamang), an enlarged, inflatable throat sac acts as a resonating chamber, amplifying their calls. Their voices are considerably more powerful than those of human singers, and can be heard from up to 0.62 miles (1 km) away.
Studies suggest that the larynx in gibbons is independent from the vocal tract, as they are in humans. Rather than depending upon anatomical modifications to produce their calls, gibbons assert neural control over their vocal apparatus; though this “skill [is] only mastered by a few humans, […] gibbons are able to do it with little effort”. It has historically been assumed that our speech is possible due to anatomical and physiological features specific to humans, but “these results suggest that our anatomy isn’t so unique”.
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