44-Year-Old Gorilla Shows Early Speech

kokoKoko, a world famous gorilla from the Gorilla Foundation (which hosts endangered great apes), has recently shown signs of early speech, something unheard of in animals. She’s started developing vocal and breathing behaviors associated with the ability to speak, which was previously thought to be impossible in her species.

While other highly intelligent animals, such as dolphins, already have ways to communicate with each other, through different whistles and sounds, Koko is the first to develop vocal and breathing behaviors that are needed for human-like speech.

Parrots, for example, have been known to mimic sounds incredibly close to that of a human, however this is different than speech because the parrots are merely copying what’s being said, not actually communicating. There have been cases of other types of animals (think of that dog on YouTube that howls “I love you”) that also mimic human voices or other sounds. Again, this is like the parrot in that these sounds aren’t meant to communicate as humans do.

Humans have evolved over the years to develop a longer throat and smaller mouth, perfect for speaking. Chimps and other primates have mouths too large and throats too short. The closest thing of communicating with primates that we’ve had until now was sign language.

During the 1930’s and 40’s scientists first determined primates were unable to communicate, like humans when a number of studies were conducted by raising chimpanzees and children alongside in an attempt to create speaking communication between species.

Marcus Perlman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, first came to work at the Gorilla Foundation 40 years ago where he inadvertently met Koko and her astonishing breathing and vocal behaviors. “I went there with the idea of studying Koko’s gestures, but as I got into watching videos of her, I saw her performing all these amazing vocal behaviours,” Dr. Perlman said in an interview with the DailyMail.

Dr. Perlman even noted the gorilla could cough on command, an amazing feat for a primate. This, he told the DailyMail, was a behavior, just like the vocal behaviors, learned from living with humans since the age of 6-months old. He doesn’t believe she’s any more gifted than other gorillas.

“The difference is just her environmental circumstances. You obviously don’t see things like this in wild populations.” Dr. Perlman said.

Opposable thumbs–speech–all these things that were meant to be inherently human are seen through different animals and mediums. The bridge between what makes us human and them animals is shrinking. What will we discover next?

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