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Tilda, The Orangutan That Whistles To Get More Food

An orangutan from a zoo in Germany has been observed to emit human-like sounds, probably to communicate her need for more food to those caring for her. This is how Tilda became the first reported wild-born orangutan to make human vocalizations. This case indicates that other apes, even those from the distant past, might have displayed the same abilities. The findings and interpretation of the above data were published in a paper in PLOS ONE journal.


Tilda from Cologne Zoo in Germany was found to make two calls unknown to the other orangutans. The first sound that she made was clicking her tongue that released sounds similar to human pronounciation of voiceless consonants. Tilda can go beyond her perceived abilities and she even whistles! It is believed that she has learned to make these vocal sounds from a trainer of hers. In addition to the vocalisations, she was also seen to clap and point towards her food items – she would thus direct attention to the food while simultaneously emitting the sounds, as a way of asking for more food.

The phenomenon was documented in a scientific paper published in the journal PLOS ONE. The lead author, Adriano Lameira, has interpreted her sounds as a means of seeking more food from the people of the zoo. Lameira said in a statement, describing the orangutan’s calling methods: “They are what we would call attention gathering or come-hither calls, which indeed are mostly used when the human caretakers are handling food. I would translate them into, ‘Come here and give that food to me!

The authors of the paper have also concluded that other orangutans must also be having similar abilities. They believe that those of the animals considered to be the common ancestors of the apes might have been making such eerily human sounds. Extending their findings further, the researchers are of the opinion that this might shed light on the origins of human speech.

Tilda is not the only one of her kind having displayed this feature though. She might be the first wild orangutan having made human sounds, but she is not strictly the first one. Bonnie, an adult orangutan bred in captivity, from the National Zoo in DC, can also whistle. Otherwise, chimpanzees as well as gorillas have been observed to communicate with humans on a high level.

These findings might serve as the guiding steps to understanding how great apes born in the wild and in captivity make use of vowel- and consonant-like calls. Perhaps, we will soon find out the origin of vowels and consonants?


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