Who is there? Captive western gorillas distinguish human voices based on familiarity and nature of previous interactions

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Roberta Salmi, Caroline E Jones, Jodi Carrigan
Animal Cognition

The ability to recognize conspecifics by their acoustic signals is of crucial importance to social animals, especially where visibility is limited, because it allows for discrimination between familiar and unfamiliar individuals and facilitates associations with and the avoidance of particular conspecifics. Animals may also benefit from an ability to recognize and use the information coded into the auditory signals of other species. Companion species such as dogs, cats, and horses are able to discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar human voices; however, whether this ability is widespread across vertebrates is still unknown. Using playback experiments, we tested whether western gorillas living at Zoo Atlanta were able to discriminate between the voices of subgroups of people: i.e., unfamiliar individuals, familiar individuals with whom the gorillas had positive interactions, and familiar individuals with whom they had negative interactions. Gorillas responded significantly more often (longer gazing duration, higher gazing frequency, shorter latency, and larger number of distress behaviors) to the voices of unfamiliar and familiar-negative individuals than to those of familiar-positive individuals, indicating that they recognized the voices of subgroup of people based on familiarity and possibly the nature of the relationship with them. Future studies should determine whether this is also the case in the wild, where interspecific associations with humans are less intense than they are in captive settings.


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