Campus News

Anthropologist describes how gorillas can tell human voices apart

Roberta Salmi, assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences’ anthropology department and director of the Primate Behavioral Ecology Lab, reported on new research with ScienceDaily.

The study, published in Animal Cognition, studied the way that gorillas recognize and interact with human voices, finding that many gorillas can tell individual people apart and even associate memories with certain voices.

Salmi found that gorillas would react negatively to voices they didn’t know or that they had had negative interactions with in the past, meaning they were not only identifying voices, but also remembering hearing that voice before. Salmi hopes this can translate to wild gorillas.

“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 Salmi. Being able to recognize voices could keep the gorillas safe.

“One of the firs things we saw was something that also happens in the wild: If there’s any sound that seems threatening or unfamiliar, they stopped what they were doing and focused their attention on it,” Salmi said. “It’s something we do too. If it’s not a threatening sound, I keep doing my own business. If I hear that there is someone in my house, I immediately stop what I’m doing to hear what’s going on.”

Gorillas are wired similarly to humans, and therefore may use the same voice recognition that humans do to avoid poachers and others that may try to do them harm.

“Some primates are able to distinguish and have different reactions to humans, according to whether they are hunters or researchers,” Salmi said. “If wild gorillas are able to distinguish between people who behave differently, not only by sight but also by voice, it would be extremely helpful. It would help me sleep better to know that researchers aren’t making the gorillas more vulnerable to hunters.”