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Whistling Orangutan Impresses Zoo Researchers

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Whistling Orangutan Impresses Zoo Researchers

Science

Whistling Orangutan Impresses Zoo Researchers

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

At the National Zoo here in Washington, Bonnie the orangutan has been amazing researchers with her special talent.

(Soundbite of whistling)

SHAPIRO: Bonnie knows how to whistle.

(Soundbite of whistling)

SHAPIRO: Those notes are a symphony to the ears of primate researchers. They believe her musical abilities could lead to a greater understanding of how human speech evolved.

Ms. ERIN STROMBERG (National Zoo): I think what makes it significant is that you can train apes to whistle, but no one actually trained her to do it. She decided to do it on her own.

SHAPIRO: That's Erin Stromberg. She works in the National Zoo's Great Ape House, where she helps care for the orangutans. And by the way, it is pronounced orangutan.

Ms. STROMBERG: As long as you don't say orangutang(ph) - with a G on the end -then you're pretty good.

SHAPIRO: Stromberg helped publish a recent paper on Bonnie's talents. Researchers believe Bonnie was trying to imitate the sounds of zookeepers who whistled while they worked. Stromberg says Bonnie's ability to copy that sound is powerful evidence that apes can re-create the sounds of other species.

Ms. STROMBERG: It's all about different verbalizations and sounds and how do they acquire them.

SHAPIRO: So what's significant about Bonnie learning to whistle is not that she's able to do it…

Ms. STROMBERG: Right.

SHAPIRO: …it's that she saw someone else do it and just picked it up.

Ms. STROMBERG: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Bonnie the orangutan is 32 years old. She has dark orange hair and a big round belly, but she weighs in at a svelte 140 pounds. She lives in a big concrete enclosure with plenty of things for her to climb up on and swing down from. A large window lets spectators look in, and Bonnie looks right back at them.

Ms. STROMBERG: She is a very feisty girl. She's very intelligent.

SHAPIRO: And she's climbing right up here to the window. Hey, Bonnie. Very intense gaze.

Ms. STROMBERG: Very inquisitive. Very inquisitive.

SHAPIRO: Bonnie has been mimicking her zookeepers' action for years. She likes to sweep the floors and wash the windows, although she uses dirty rags to do it. Once she started whistling, researchers decided to test her gift for mimicking sounds. They asked Stromberg to whistle basic patterns to see if Bonnie could copy them. And it turns out it was easier for the ape than the human.

Ms. STROMBERG: I'm actually not a good whistler, so…

SHAPIRO: I'll confess. I'm not a very good whistler either. Honestly. I'm the wrong person to be doing this story.

Ms. STROMBERG: Yeah. She's actually quite good at it.

SHAPIRO: But not good enough to whistle a melody. Then again, neither can Stromberg. So the researchers kept it simple.

Ms. STROMBERG: I would give a long whistle, and would she then in turn imitate me? Or if I gave a short whistle, would she then do a short whistle? And she would. She was pretty good at following what I was doing.

SHAPIRO: If orangutans can whistle, could they conceivably some day learn to talk?

Ms. STROMBERG: They don't have the correct vocal cords that humans do.

SHAPIRO: Put this in perspective. Parrots whistle. Dolphins and whales vocalize. We've heard primates make all kinds of other noises. And they've been learning sign language for years. Why is this discovery significant?

Ms. STROMBERG: I think what makes it significant is that something made her want to whistle, or at least try it out. And so she was to me challenging herself to do something else.

SHAPIRO: Erin, it was great talking to you. Thanks a lot.

Ms. STROMBERG: Thanks for stopping by. Have a good time at the zoo.

SHAPIRO: Erin Stromberg is a research assistant at the National Zoo, and she helps take care of Bonnie the whistling orangutan.

Given that you and I are both bad whistlers, I think on the count of three we should try in unison to make the best sound we can. All right?

Ms. STROMBERG: I'm no good at it.

SHAPIRO: Me neither. That's why this will work. All right? One, two, three.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Ms. STROMBERG: You are worse than I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Anyone can whistle, any old day, easy…

SHAPIRO: To see Bonnie whistling, along with video of her and her orangutan boyfriend Kyle, just swing on over to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) …though someone tell me why can't I. I can dance a tango, I can read Greek, easy…

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