New paper on orangutans and the evolution of language

A new paper led by Adriano Lameira: Speech-Like Rhythm in a Voiced and Voiceless Orangutan Call


The evolutionary origins of speech remain obscure. Recently, it was proposed that speech derived from monkey facial signals which exhibit a speech-like rhythm of ~5 open-close lip cycles per second. In monkeys, these signals may also be vocalized, offering a plausible evolutionary stepping stone towards speech. Three essential predictions remain, however, to be tested to assess this hypothesis’ validity; (i) Great apes, our closest relatives, should likewise produce 5Hz-rhythm signals, (ii) speech-like rhythm should involve calls articulatorily similar to consonants and vowels given that speech rhythm is the direct product of stringing together these two basic elements, and (iii) speech-like rhythm should be experience-based. Via cinematic analyses we demonstrate that an ex-entertainment orangutan produces two calls at a speech-like rhythm, coined “clicks” and “faux-speech.” Like voiceless consonants, clicks required no vocal fold action, but did involve independent manoeuvring over lips and tongue. In parallel to vowels, faux-speech showed harmonic and formant modulations, implying vocal fold and supralaryngeal action. This rhythm was several times faster than orangutan chewing rates, as observed in monkeys and humans. Critically, this rhythm was seven-fold faster, and contextually distinct, than any other known rhythmic calls described to date in the largest database of the orangutan repertoire ever assembled. The first two predictions advanced by this study are validated and, based on parsimony and exclusion of potential alternative explanations, initial support is given to the third prediction. Irrespectively of the putative origins of these calls and underlying mechanisms, our findings demonstrate irrevocably that great apes are not respiratorily, articulatorilly, or neurologically constrained for the production of consonant- and vowel-like calls at speech rhythm. Orangutan clicks and faux-speech confirm the importance of rhythmic speech antecedents within the primate lineage, and highlight potential articulatory homologies between great ape calls and human consonants and vowels.

New paper on the impact of climate change and land cover change on Bornean orangutans

A new paper on climate change and land cover change offers new hope for Bornean orangutans. See a new paper led by Matthew Struebig in Global Change Biology:

This is the abstract:


Habitat loss and climate change pose a double jeopardy for many threatened taxa, making the identification of optimal habitat for the future a conservation priority. Using a case study of the endangered Bornean orang-utan, we identify environmental refuges by integrating bioclimatic models with projected deforestation and oil-palm agriculture suitability from the 1950s to 2080s. We coupled a maximum entropy algorithm with information on habitat needs to predict suitable habitat for the present day and 1950s. We then projected to the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s in models incorporating only land-cover change, climate change or both processes combined. For future climate, we incorporated projections from four model and emission scenario combinations. For future land cover, we developed spatial deforestation predictions from 10 years of satellite data. Refuges were delineated as suitable forested habitats identified by all models that were also unsuitable for oil palm – a major threat to tropical biodiversity. Our analyses indicate that in 2010 up to 260 000 km2 of Borneo was suitable habitat within the core orang-utan range; an 18–24% reduction since the 1950s. Land-cover models predicted further decline of 15–30% by the 2080s. Although habitat extent under future climate conditions varied among projections, there was majority consensus, particularly in north-eastern and western regions. Across projections habitat loss due to climate change alone averaged 63% by 2080, but 74% when also considering land-cover change. Refuge areas amounted to 2000–42 000 km2 depending on thresholds used, with 900–17 000 km2 outside the current species range. We demonstrate that efforts to halt deforestation could mediate some orang-utan habitat loss, but further decline of the most suitable areas is to be expected given projected changes to climate. Protected refuge areas could therefore become increasingly important for ongoing translocation efforts. We present an approach to help identify such areas for highly threatened species given environmental changes expected this century.