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Gibbons on Helium

September 4, 2012

An experiment with helium shows that gibbons can manipulate their vocal tracts like expert opera singers.



Studying ape voices with helium.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

When I inhale helium from this party balloon, [INHALE], it makes my voice sound like this.  Scientists in Japan recently tried the same thing with small apes called white-handed gibbons, to learn how their sophisticated songs can be heard through the jungle for up to two miles.  Here’s a normal gibbon call:

[normal gibbon]

And here’s one in a helium-rich environment:

[gibbon on helium]


According to Takeshi Nishimura from the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto, the experiments showed that gibbons can adjust their vocal tracts to amplify the lowest frequencies in their voice, even when it’s artificially altered by helium.  It’s a kind of vocal control that world-class opera sopranos develop, and it may be what allows them to project their voices so well.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

A pair of white-handed gibbons. (Matthias Kabel/Wikimedia Commons)