Chimps Can Learn To Communicate With Each Other, New Study Shows

02/10/2015 06:19 am ET | Updated Feb 10, 2015

Move somewhere new, and it's not long before you pick up some local slang. As it turns out, chimpanzees might be able to do something similar.

Maybe we're not so different after all.

When a group of chimps from Beekse Bergen Safari Park in the Netherlands was sent to live with the chimps at the Edinburgh Zoo in 2010, they each had their own distinct grunts and calls that represented "apple."

But a new study from scientists at the University of York and University of Zurich that was published in Current Biology shows how, over time, the Dutch chimps changed their calls as they learned to vocalize "apple" in a way similar to their host chimps in Scotland.

Here, for example, is a chimp named Frek vocalizing the word "apple" when he first arrived in 2010:

Compare Frek's high-pitched cries to the vocalizations used by one of the locals, a chimp named Lucy:

As the chimps intermingled, the grunts for "apple" became similar. Three years later, Frek's version matched Lucy's:

"These data represent the first evidence of non-human animals actively modifying and socially learning the structure of a meaningful referential vocalization," Dr. Katie Slocombe, one of the authors of the study, said in a news release.

Dr. Simon Townsend, one of the study's co-authors, told the BBC that they're still not sure if this means the chimps have learned another sound for "apple" -- like a human who speaks English learning the word in French -- or if they've simply picked up the local accent in the Scottish zoo.

“These findings might shed some light on the evolutionary origins of these abilities," Townsend said in a news release. "The fact that both humans and now chimpanzees possess this basic ability suggests that our shared common ancestor living over 6 million years ago may also have been socially learning referential vocalizations.”

The study builds on a growing body of work into the vocalizations of primates and how they can change and develop over time.

While it's tempting to compare these vocalizations to speech and language, scientists say the reality is far more complicated.

Dr. Adriano Lameira, co-founder and president of the orangutan research organization Pongo Foundation and one of the authors of last month's study, said the new research "generates a striking parallel with how humans learn words and attribute them with meaning."

At the same time, it may not have been entirely conscious, that the amount of time it took for the vocalizations to change suggest "physiological processes or passive adaptation (possibly oxytocin-regulated since convergence was dependent on the quality of the relationships between the individuals), not so much voluntary acts," Lameira told The Huffington Post.

Chimps can also pass their calls on through generations.

"This is still remarkably different from what humans do –- we modify at will and instantly new and learned calls," Lameira said.

Dr. Rob Shumaker, supervising vice president of conservation, science, and education at the Indianapolis Zoo and a co-author on the orangutan paper, said that -- as with humans -- a common vocabulary allows chimps to communicate more effectively.

"While it’s not surprising that chimpanzees prioritize group cohesion, it is quite remarkable to see it documented through these evolving vocalizations," Shumaker said.

"Overall, the paper speaks to the cognitive complexity that is present in chimpanzees and great apes in general," Shumaker said. "Further, it affirms the notion that any differences we see between the mental skills of humans and the other great apes are ones of degree, not kind."

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