After a study was published in February of this year, scientists debate the accent and language-learning of chimpanzees, with one side stating that the initial findings were flawed.
- Researchers studied chimpanzees transferred from a Dutch zoo to a Scottish one
- Dr. Townsend and his team suggest that the chimps learned a new word for ‘apple’
- Dr. Hingham and others counter that their study is flawed, and that, in the best case scenario, the chimps only adapted to a new ‘accent’
According to a study that was released early this year, researchers noted that chimpanzees can learn a new language from others of their kind. They studied a group of primates that were moved from a safari park in the Netherlands to a zoo in Edinburgh, Scotland. After they were transferred in 2010, the scientists observed them over the course of three years.
In 2013, the team of researchers, led by Dr. Simon Townsend, suggested that the chimpanzees adapt to their new surroundings by learning a new ‘word’ for their favorite meal: apples. The scientists found that while the group of primates had a high-pitched sound to request their meals in the Netherlands, that had changed within the next three years.
After being entrapped at the Edinburgh zoo, the chimpanzees had switched to a low-pitched sound that was typical of their Scottish counterparts. Essentially, the researchers suggested that the Dutch primates learned from the Scotts on how to ask for apples. The study also underlined that their preference for the fruit had not changed. Meaning that it wasn’t related to a lower amount of enthusiasm toward the meal.
However, their study has been criticized by other experts in the field. According to Dr. James Hingham, who is an anthropologist at New York University (NYU), there are “a number of problems” with their findings. While some dismiss the methods used, others refer to the actual interpretation of the data found as being wrong.
Their issues seemed to root in the definition of what constitutes “vocal learning”. Critics of the paper suggest that the adjustment of the chimps was merely “social adjustment”. Meaning that they believe the primates were blending in by learning the accent, instead of learning the Scottish chimp word for “apples”.
Furthermore, those stating that the study is flawed, have underlined the issue of lower levels of energy. They estimated that the three years that required adapting had been one of the factors influencing their high-pitched calls.
However, the study’s author counters that the same change should have been observed in the chimpanzees at the Edinburgh zoo if that were the case. They were required to adapt as well to new neighbors. But nothing changed in their own calls.
In spite of the contradictions and the criticism, Dr. Townsend stated that the back and forth of replies is a “helpful trade” that could only lead to better understanding of the field.
Image source: worldcoo.com