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Last updated at 15:09 BST, Friday, 24 August 2012

Singing apes

Summary

24 August 2012

Researchers in Japan have discovered that one of the apes common in Asia uses the same techniques as soprano singers when they make their calls through the jungle. A team working at Kyoto's Primate Research Institute has used a surprising experiment.

Reporter:

Jason Palmer

Gibbons

What do gibbons have in common with opera singers?

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Report

Humans have vocal folds very similar to those of apes, but we can also precisely control the shape and size of our vocal tract. For powerful high notes, soprano singers match the natural frequencies of the two.

But how to find out if gibbons can do the same? Give them some helium. Helium raises the natural frequency just of the vocal tract but not the vocal folds. In helium-huffing gibbons, calls stayed just as piercing because the animals tuned their vocal tracts to match the higher frequencies. In short, gibbons sing soprano all the time.

It's not just a primate party trick - this separation between the actual source of the sound and the mechanism of shaping it is something that biologists thought was a result of a long evolutionary process, leading to our finely-controlled speech. But it seems nature came up with the biological equipment for these techniques long before humans headed to the opera.

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Vocabulary

vocal folds

tissue in the throat that is moved by air to produce the voice

vocal tract

passages in the nose, mouth and throat where air moves to produce the voice

soprano singers

people who sing with the highest voice

frequencies

rates at which sounds vibrate

helium

chemical element often used to make balloons float

piercing

high and loud

tuned

adjusted

party trick

amusing performance at a party

mechanism

system or method

finely-controlled

carefully produced