Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can Dutch Chimps Pick Up a Scottish Accent? Scientists Aren't So Sure

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can Dutch Chimps Pick Up a Scottish Accent? Scientists Aren't So Sure

Article excerpt

Can chimpanzees learn new accents?

A widely-covered study published in February that suggested that primates can adapt their grunts to match those of new neighbors in new places is now being questioned by a group of primatologists.

The original study followed a group of Dutch chimps who, in 2010, moved to a zoo in Edinburgh, Scotland, with new Scottish chimp neighbors. By 2013, the Dutch chimps' call for apples changed from excited, high-pitched calls to less excited, lower-pitched grunts that matched those of their new Scottish chimp neighbors. Their calls changed even as their preference for apples appeared to remain the same, which led researchers to suggest that the Dutch group had learned a new word - or a new accent - from the Scottish group.

But in a letter to the journal Current Biology, a group of three researchers have said the results of that study are flawed.

"There are a number of problems with the original study," James Higham, an anthropologist from New York University, told the BBC. "Some of these relate to the methods used, while others are fundamentally a misrepresentation of what the data actually show."

For starters, Higham and his fellow critics said the two groups calls actually weren't so different in the first place.

"Closer inspection of the data reveals that both groups largely overlapped in the range of calls they were originally giving in response to the apples," Brandon Wheeler, an anthropologist from the University of Kent in Britain, said.

Both the original researchers and the critics replotted data on chimp calls to re-examine whether the calls overlapped. While the critics' findings emphasized the similarity in the two groups' calls, the original authors' findings confirmed their earlier conclusion: that the chimps had different calls that converged over time. …

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