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Scientists are gaining insight into human speech – by teaching orangutans to play the kazoo

INDIANAPOLIS – Scientists at the Indianapolis Zoo and the University of St. Andrews have discovered that great apes can control their voice in a similar way to humans by teaching them how to play kazoos.

They said this could rewrite textbooks and provide new insight to the evolution of human language.

The research, a collaboration with the University of Durham, reveals how orangutans can control their vocal cords. The team studied 11-year-old Rocky and 36-year-old Knobi at the Indianapolis Zoo

“It is different than just blowing air like you would through a whistle, that's just blowing, but to use a kazoo you have to actually vibrate your vocal cords or vocal folds,” said Dr. Rob Shumaker, president of the Indianapolis Zoo.

By playing the kazoo, researchers determined that our nearest ape relatives have good levels of voice control to a degree. That kind of voice control is what allows humans to learn vowels and language.

Shumaker said the findings are already putting the Indianapolis Zoo on the map.

“This challenges some beliefs that have been up for a very long time, and people are going to have to rewrite their textbooks,” Shumaker said.

Shumaker said he hopes the research also inspires people to care more about orangutan conservation.

“All populations of orangutans in the wild are critically endangered, we absolutely need more people to add their voice to support orangutan conservation in the wild,” he said.

Shumaker said you can support orangutans by only using sustainable palm oil because non-sustainable palm oil is the number one reason orangutans are disappearing in the wild. Palm oil is a common household product found in things like shampoo and toothpaste.

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