Bonnie the Orangutan Is the First Whistling Primate

By Nina Bai | December 16, 2008 1:53 pm

orangutanScientists were stunned when they first heard Bonnie whistle. The 30-year-old female orangutan at the Smithsonian National Zoo had never been taught to whistle, but she figured out the trick all by herself back in the 1980s, according to her caretakers. That makes her the first documented case of a primate spontaneously mimicking the sounds of another species—in this case, humans.

Though she can’t carry a tune, Bonnie seems to enjoy whistling and will usually happily comply when asked to do it. You can even watch her whistle on Youtube. The researchers, who published a paper on Bonnie in the journal Primates [subscription required], say she also taught another orangutan, Indah, how to whistle. Bonnie and Indah dispel the theory that orangutan vocalizations are only involuntary reactions to stimuli, and are mainly determined by evolutionary factors.

Instead, whistling orangutans suggest that orangutans can learn and teach each other new vocalizations. This would explain why separate populations of orangutans in the wild seem to maintain different repertoires of sounds—which can include screams, grumbles, barks, raspberries, and kiss squeaks.

Research on Bonnie may shed some light on the evolution of human speech. Too bad primates just don’t have the same vocal chords as we do. But imagine if they did—what would they say? Although scientists have already managed to have monkeys control prosthetic limbs using brain-machine interfaces. Maybe with the addition of a voice synthesizer we could eventually hear an orangutan speak.

Related Content:
80beats: Orangutans Are Threatened with Extinction as Habitats Shrink
80beats: Great Apes Have the Right to Life and Liberty, Spain Says
DISCOVER: The Battle for #2 in Primate IQ
DISCOVER: Musical Scales Mimic the Sound of Language

Image: flickr / AZAdam

MORE ABOUT: orangutan, primates
  • Bystander

    It never occurred to me, for some reason I suppose, that the first sentient non-human that man would talk to may actually come from Earth. o_O I’ve never denied the existence of intelligence in other animals… but reading about the indirect probability of helping another primate to vocalize their thoughts is just awe inspiring to me.

    Of course, if they did accomplish this feat they’d still have to get through outraged religious fanatics screaming ‘hoax’.

  • Happy Medium

    Um, guys, humans are also primates. And can whistle.

  • Pingback: Muriqui Monkeys, However Gentle, Will Kill to Mate | Discoblog | Discover Magazine

  • Jung Eun

    I love Bonnie!! She is very gifted. I heard that many scientists are going apes too!! HaHa.

  • Ji Eun

    I think Bonnie is very intelligent. She has a great talent!! I want to see her when I go to the United States.

  • Bonnie

    THanks!!!

  • Jerry and Irene

    Our children love Bonnie!! Thanks for Bonnie!!

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