June 12, 2012

New Research Suggests Gorillas Use ‘Baby Talk’

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com

Scientists reported in the American journal of Primatology that gorillas use a type of "baby talk" when communicating with infants.

A team of scientists studied captive western lowland gorillas by watching and filming the animals as they interacted.

Western lowland gorillas have a wide range of communication gestures, so the team focused on facial expressions and hand signals used in play.

Eva Maria Luef from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, along with colleagues, filmed 120 hours of footage of the gorillas at Leipzig Zoo and Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks in the U.K.

Analyzing the footage helped reveal that when the animals play, the adult females used more tactile gestures than they used with other adults.

"The infants also received more repetition," Dr. Luef explained in the journal.

She said the researchers decided to call one of the motherly gestures a "hand-on."

"This is where mothers put the flat hand of their hand on top of the [infant's] head," Dr. Luef said in a statement. "It means 'stop it.'"

They found the gorillas use this gesture when talking with other gorillas as a signal that an animal has "had enough."  However, with an infant, the female would repeat the action several times.

The researchers say the communication helps infants build up their understanding of the signals they will use as adults.

"It also shows that older animals possess a certain awareness of the infants' immature communication skills," Dr. Luef said.

Prof. Richard Byrne from the University of St. Andrews said the importance of the way in which adults talk to babies is a "natural but very smart way of conveying the details of how we construct complex grammar".

He said since gorillas do not acquire language, they have "no need of such an adaption," so he does not believe the new research sheds light on the evolution of human "baby talk."