Itâ€™s an old party trickâ€”sucking helium from balloons so you can sing like a Wizard of Oz munchkin. When gibbons inhale this non-toxic gas, researchers can detect much more sophisticated impersonations. It turns out that gibbon vocalization techniques mirror those of highly trained soprano opera singers.
â€œWeâ€™ve shown how the gibbonsâ€™ distinctive song uses the same vocal mechanics as soprano singers, revealing a fundamental similarity with humans,â€ explains Takeshi Nishimura, an associate professor with the Primate Research Institute at Japanâ€™s Kyoto University.
Scientists had previously believed that human speech was possible, in part, due to suspected evolutionary changes in the larynx, tongue, and vocal tract. But Nishimuraâ€™s new findings suggest that humans may not have vocal anatomy and ability as unique as previously thought.
We share voice-box physiology with gibbons, and likely other primates, but we also share the way we manipulate sound, Nishimura explains. With both humans and gibbons, the origin of the soundâ€”the larynxâ€”is independent from the vocal tools (or training) used to tailor audible messages.