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Gorillas can tell human voices apart

Alan Flurry

Many animals recognize the voices of members of their own species, and some can even recognize those of other species, such as humans. But it turns out a few animals, such as gorillas, can not only recognize familiar voices but also connect those voices to pleasant or not so pleasant memories.

A new study from the University of Georgia is the first to show that gorillas are able to recognize familiar human voices based on their relationship with the speaker.

The researchers found that captive gorillas responded negatively when they heard the voices of people they didn’t know or with whom they’d had negative interactions. Their reaction indicates that the apes likely recognized who the voices belonged to and possibly the nature of their relationship with those individuals.

Although this project focused specifically on gorillas at Zoo Atlanta, the findings, published in the journal Animal Cognition, have wider implications for the captive animals’ wild cousins.

“I worked mostly with wild gorillas, and one downside of working with wild primates is that through the habituation process we could make them much more susceptible to hunters because they become used to seeing and hearing people,” said Roberta Salmi, lead author of the study and director of the Primate Behavioral Ecology Lab in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “If they are actually able to distinguish between people, there is hope.”

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Image: Charlie, one of the male gorillas at Zoo Atlanta, thumps his chest in his enclosure. (Photo courtesy of Zoo Atlanta)

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