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News

Carthage students work to decode the secret ‘language’ of gibbons

July 18, 2019

White-handed gibbons at the Racine ZooWhite-handed gibbons at the Racine Zoo

Humans are not the only creatures who use vocalizations to communicate. Animals communicate vocally as well, and Carthage biology professor Angela Dassow has been listening for years.

This summer, Prof. Dassow stepped up her research into primate behavior. She and two Carthage students — Joy Layton ’20 and Azniv Khaligian ’22 — are studying the play vocalizations of two white-handed gibbons at the Racine Zoo, 2131 North Main St. in Racine, Wisconsin.

“The goal of our current study is to further our understanding of white-handed gibbon vocal communication by examining the acoustical properties of play vocalizations,” Prof. Dassow explained.

Joy Layton '20, Azniv Khaligian '22, and Prof. DassowJoy Layton '20, Azniv Khaligian '22, and Prof. Dassow

The two gibbons being studied by the Carthage team are a father and daughter. Yule, age 53, and Robyn, age 37, have been living together for more than 20 years. Prof. Dassow first studied them more than seven years ago, and through those audio recordings, she has been able to characterize the animals’ behaviors as playful. They exhibit behaviors similar to younger gibbons — something that is very uncommon within the gibbon community, Prof. Dassow said.

The students are recording audio and video of Robyn and Yule when they are engaged in play behavior.

“Their extended father-daughter relationship allows us to observe and record their play behavior and vocalizations,” said Joy, a biology major from Mundelein, Illinois.

“The play vocalizations we are recording have not been recorded in any other gibbons thus far,” she continued. “Due to the bioacoustics nature of Dr. Dassow’s research, we are focusing primarily on analyzing and characterizing the ‘bleat’ sound they make during play, along with describing what the play behaviors are. We hope to gain a better understanding of what this particular sound is and how it fits into the rest of the gibbon’s vocal repertoire.”

Joy Layton '20 gathering dataJoy Layton '20 gathering data

Joy and Azniv started gathering data on May 28. They will finish recording on July 31, but their work will continue.

“The overarching goal of my research lab is to characterize linguistic structures in non-human animal vocal communication systems,” said Prof. Dassow.