SCIENCE
01/13/2015 10:39 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Orangutan's Super-Freaky 'Talking' Sheds New Light On Human Speech

She's not exactly talking, but a female orangutan at the Cologne Zoo in Germany has been making vocalizations that bear an eerie resemblance to human speech (just check out the video above).

“These calls were produced by quickly opening and closing the lips, much like humans do when talking," Dr. Adriano Lameira, co-founder and president of the Dutch orangutan research non-profit Pongo Foundation and leader of a recent study of the orangutan's calls, said in a written statement. "One of these calls presented similarities with human consonants, and the other with human vowels, the two basic building blocks of human speech.”

It's unnerving for sure, but that's not all. Scientists say the orang, named Tilda, may help solve the longstanding mystery of how human speech evolved.

How did Tilda, who has spent nearly 50 years in captivity, ever learn to make those sounds? Records about her early years are scant, but the researchers believe she must have been trained at some point to perform several humanlike behaviors--including clapping her hands, waving her arms, and whistling in addition to producing speechlike sounds.

For their research, Lameira and his colleagues recorded Tilda making the sounds, and then compared their rhythm to that of other orangutan calls and human speech. The researchers found that both the orangutan's unvoiced clicks (consonant-like sounds) and voiced "faux-speech" (vowel-like grumbles) were produced at a rhythm similar to human speech.

What's more, they found that Tilda's sounds--which she only made in the presence of her caretakers--were delivered at a pace seven times faster than that of any other rhythmic orangutan calls ever recorded.

It turns out that orangutans have more speech-like capabilities than previously thought, Lameira said in the statement.

According to the researchers, further studies that look at how orangutans and other great apes use the clicks and grunts may help scientists understand how these strange sounds served as "stepping stones" in the evolution of human speech.

"A renewed interest in great ape call repertoires, on how consonant- and vowel-like calls are used in the wild and captivity, and how these two call categories function, will likely bring us closer to understand the conditions that brought together for the first time the two basic building blocks of speech," the researchers wrote in an article describing their findings, which was published online Jan. 8 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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