Watch This Orangutan Try to Talk Like a Human

It’s just a few sounds so far, but isn’t that how ‘Planet of the Apes’ started?
Jan 14, 2015·
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

"Humans don't like smart ape."

Those fateful words, signed by an orangutan in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, kicked off what would become a revolution.

In the real world, a different kind of revolution may just have been set in motion by an orangutan named Tilda. She's not looking to overthrow humanity though. No, she's just looking for food.

Tilda is a nearly 50-year-old orangutan who lives at the Cologne Zoo in Germany. Captured on the island of Borneo in 1967, she spent her teenage years in the possession of Swiss endocrinologist Hugo Steiner and then the next 30-odd years in a zoo owned by the Steiner family.

But it was the time before she was acquired by the Steiner family that left an impression and made her unique.

Where and how Tilda lived until 1975 is shrouded in mystery, yet according to a paper published last week in the journal PLOS One, it appears that she was trained as an entertainer, possibly in Belgium. There, her caretakers taught her several behaviors that have never been observed in wild orangutans: hand clapping, arm waving, and humanlike whistling.

That’s not all. Tilda also communicates in a vocal rhythm using a series of clicks and sounds—as seen in this video—that require the use of her lips and tongue, something no other orangutan has ever done.

Yes, Tilda can speak.

Technically the researchers call it "faux-speech," but it's enough for Tilda to communicate basic needs such as "come here" and "give me food."

"These calls were produced by quickly opening and closing the lips, much like humans do when talking," lead researcher Adriano Lameira of the Pongo Foundation explained in a statement. "One of these calls presented similarities with human consonants, and the other with human vowels, the two basic building blocks of human speech."

This unique behavior not only blows away the previous scientific assumptions that great apes don't have much motor control over their vocal capabilities as humans, but the researchers say it could lead to revelations about the very origins of language.

It also reveals a lot about orangutans.

"Tilda's vocalizations certainly force the scientific community to rethink commonly held assumptions about orangutans' vocal possibilities," said Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the endangered apes.

He wonders if Tilda could one day be less unusual than she is today.

"Orangutans in the wild possess what we would call culture, and this culture has been seen to vary from group to group," Zimmerman explained. "It would be interesting to see if Tilda teaches her unique vocal skills to other orangutans, young or old, at the Cologne Zoo."

He hopes that this new research about Tilda could help to save her species. "Orangutans are literally being wiped out in their native habitats, the forests of Borneo and Sumatra," Zimmerman said. "So, while Tilda is not talking, per se, if she or her wild cousins could talk, I think their first words would most likely be a cry for help."

By the way, speaking isn't Tilda's only talent. She's also a pretty good painter, and the sales of her artwork have helped raise funds to improve her zoo habitat. Let's see a chimpanzee try that.