VIDEO: If You Give Gibbons Some Helium, They'll Probably Trill Like Professional Opera Singers

By Anthony Smith on August 23, 2012 2:22 PM EDT

Gibbons
Gibbons researchers in Japan gave the primates helium to see what would happen. Fortunately for all involved, they began to belt and trill like professional opera singers. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Much appreciation should given to the team of Gibbons researchers (from Japan) who gave the mammals helium to see what would happen, proving pretty definitively that some science can seem pretty weird and trivial, but it can also yield some very amusing, and maybe even relevant results.

As our headline suggests, Gibbons researchers in Japan gave the primates helium to see what would happen. Fortunately for all involved, they began to belt and trill like professional opera singers.

The study may seem slight, or like a silly way to spend grant money, but it actually makes the case for evidence of an unusual and undiscovered anatomical similarity between humans and gibbons.

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"The complexity of human speech is unique among primates as it requires varied soft sounds made by the rapid movements of vocal tracts," said Takeshi Nishimura, lead researcher from the Primate Research Institute situated out of Kyoto University, "Our speech was thought to have evolved through specific modifications in our vocal anatomy. However, we've shown how the gibbons' distinctive song uses the same vocal mechanics as soprano singers, revealing a fundamental similarity with humans."

Nishimura and his team studied 20 cries from a white-handed gibbon in a controlled atmosphere, then compared that to 37 cried from hir in an atmosphere filled with helium.

As every five-year old who's just had hir first birthday party knows, helium does some silly things to the human voice, tinting it with a squeaky, almost comical high-pitch. This is due to the density of helium being much less than that of our air, which results in an upwards push of the resonant frequencies within the vocal tract.

Through the analysis of the gibbons' songs, we can infer that the same is true for these primates.

But don't take our word for it, listen for yourself:

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