The newest debate in the scientific community isn’t over the concept of time travel, or the speed of light, but instead concerns whether or not chimpanzee’s have accents depending on the region they come from. The topic may seem pointless to argue over, but it may actually hint at the chimps’ having higher language skills than we previously understood, meaning a higher level of overall intelligence as well.
The idea came into consideration when researchers noticed that newly arrived chimpanzees at a zoo in Edinburgh, who came from a safari park in the Netherlands in 2010, had subtly different calls from the chimps that were already there. In fact, the chimps’ calls seemed to be affected by their new Scottish neighbours, as they appeared to change over time. The scientists point specifically to their call for apples, which were first observed to be high pitched and excited, but later became low and more lethargic like the Scottish chimps.
Scientists believe the chimps may have learned a new word for the inquiry or changed their accent entirely, with both possibilities illustrating that apes have significant adaption abilities. The change in tone didn’t mean they were enjoying the apples less, but rather that they were tailoring themselves to their new environment.
The debate has become quite involved, with the two opposing groups of scientists referring to the same data, but with different interpretations. One side refuted the claims, saying that there were problems with the measurements, and that the sounds the chimps make were not even considerably different.
Julia Fischer of the German Primate Center, New York University’s James Higham, and the University of Kent’s Brandon Wheeler, re-analysed the study (which was published in the journal Current Biology) questioning its methods and pointing out possible explanations.
“This was a pretty drastic example of exaggerated claims based on a thin data set,” Fischer said. “Some people are more happy to accept a wild explanation. Others aren’t.”
The group suggested that the researchers ruled out simple explanations like the Dutch animals simply being more excited about apples than the Scottish animals or them feeling less secure in their new surroundings.
The original team responded to the criticism, conceding that there are a few holes in their study, but maintaining that their findings still have significance.
“We think that we’ve addressed the points that they bring up. It’s an interesting critique of our research – and this is exactly how science works,” said the study’s co-writer Dr. Simon Townsend from Warwick University. “It could be that they’re actively changing this call to improve understanding. Or it could be that they are adjusting their calls to fit in.”
The key point, he notes, was that these calls showed a previously unseen flexibility.