Tool use in wild orang-utans modifies sound production: a functionally deceptive innovation?

Madeleine E. Hardus, Adriano R. Lameira, Carel P. Van Schaik, Serge A. Wich


Culture has long been assumed to be uniquely human but recent studies, in particular on great apes, have suggested that cultures also occur in non-human primates. The most apparent cultural behaviours in great apes involve tools in the subsistence context where they are clearly functional to obtain valued food. On the other hand, tool-use to modify acoustic communication has been reported only once and its function has not been investigated. Thus, the question whether this is an adaptive behaviour remains open, even though evidence indicates that it is socially transmitted (i.e. cultural). Here we report on wild orang-utans using tools to modulate the maximum frequency of one of their sounds, the kiss squeak, emitted in distress. In this variant, orang-utans strip leaves off a twig and hold them to their mouth while producing a kiss squeak. Using leaves as a tool lowers the frequency of the call compared to a kiss squeak without leaves or with only a hand to the mouth. If the lowering of the maximum frequency functions in orang-utans as it does in other animals, two predictions follow: (i) kiss squeak frequency is related to body size and (ii) the use of leaves will occur in situations of most acute danger. Supporting these predictions, kiss squeaks without tools decreased with body size and kiss squeaks with leaves were only emitted by highly distressed individuals. Moreover, we found indications that the calls were under volitional control. This finding is significant for at least two reasons. First, although few animal species are known to deceptively lower the maximum frequency of their calls to exaggerate their perceived size to the listener (e.g. vocal tract elongation in male deer) it has never been reported that animals may use tools to achieve this, or that they are primates. Second, it shows that the orang-utan culture extends into the communicative domain, thus challenging the traditional assumption that primate calling behaviour is overall purely emotional.


    • Received June 20, 2009.
    • Accepted July 14, 2009.
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