When Katie and her primates get together to chat
THE instant chorus of oo-ing and screaming which erupts from the chimps at Edinburgh Zoo when their "old friend" Katie Slocombe returns from her travels and pays them a visit is astounding.
"This is the first time I have seen them since I got back from Uganda," the 22-year-old animal communication expert tells me, before launching into "chimp speak" with such finesse that I almost feel the need to check her for bananas.
Sadly, the thought that I may be standing next to a real-life Dr Doolittle is short-lived as it becomes apparent that the animals are really expressing their delight at the sight of the zookeeper, who has appeared at the same time - with food.
They haven’t noticed Katie at all.
But while the noises they make definitely do not translate as "Great to see you again, Katie, old girl!" there is a meaning to their calls which she understands pretty well.
She says: "The call they made shows excitement. It is made by the males in the wild to attract other chimps, it means: ‘I’m here, where are you? There’s something good here’. When the keeper arrived their calls meant something like: ‘There’s food over there’."
The call is known as a pant hoot, which makes it sound a bit like the chimp equivalent of a wolf whistle.
And in some circumstances, that is more or less what it is.
"If there are lots of female chimps in oestrus [in heat ] and a lot of nice food around the males will make a lot of noise. If there are no females in oestrus and no food around they won’t say much. Especially if it’s raining, they are quite miserable in the rain."
The similarities between male chimps and men are uncanny.
At my request Katie does the introductions, in English thankfully, telling the chimps apart with ease as she points them out to me.
"There’s Ricky, with a banana in his mouth. And there’s David, with the grey beard, who is scratching. Emma is just turning her back on you."
So, not big on manners, then.
As a PhD student at St Andrews University specialising in primate behaviour and communication, Katie is neither surprised nor offended that the zoo chimps, which she has spent a month observing at close quarters, are oblivious to her.
She is also quick to stress that she is no Dr Doolittle, for although she does talk to the animals sometimes, it is in English.
"I have not had any amazing talking experiences with beasties! I talk to them the way you would talk to a dog."
However, as she has already demonstrated, she can mimic their different calls with ease.
And when I ask her to humour me and try to have a bit of a chat with the chimps, she obliges.
A crescendo of "oo-oo-oos" emits from her mouth in a perfect pant hoot - a reference to the way the animal pants as it makes the noise.
Her opening gambit roughly translates along the lines of: "I’m here, there’s something important over here. Come and see."
We wait. Most of the chimps have already retreated into the covered part of their enclosure by this time (where I suspect they are probably conducting a multilingual debate on the finer points of the banana or something).
Kindia, one of the chimps remaining outside, glances over at Katie briefly. But answer comes there none.
"They can see there isn’t anything important over here at all," she offers, adding: "They have kids screaming at them all day, so they are used to it. Some of the kids’ calls are very good."
The point of Katie’s work is not to learn to talk to the animals anyway. It is to understand how chimps - man’s closest relations - communicate with each other.
And she has made an important discovery through her work in Edinburgh and Uganda, where she has been studying chimps in the wild over the past year. World ape expert Jane Goodall identified 32 different calls which chimps make, including screams, pant hoots, grunts and barks.
Now, by recording and analysing the screams made by chimps during fights, Katie has found that they make different noises depending on whether they are the victim or the assailant.
Katie, who was back at the zoo this week to give a talk - to humans - about her work, explains: "It has already been proved that when a chimp screams, other chimps can identify him by his call as David, for example, so they will know ‘That’s David’, although obviously not with the name."
She adds: "I have found that if chimps are listening they can hear that David and, say, Louie, are fighting, and they can also tell from the calls that David is saying ‘I’m here and I’m the victim’ and Louis is saying ‘I’m here and I’m the aggressor’. In the wild it gives them more information to decide whether or not to go and intervene."
Unfortunately for the Davids of the chimp world, there aren’t many have-a-go heroes willing to rescue a friend in need. As Katie explains: "Most don’t bother."
Chimps are very good at alerting each other to danger, however, with a range of alarm calls.
"You can’t call them words, and you should avoid saying they have language, because clearly they don’t.
"But they seem to have different alarm calls for different dangers such as snakes, earthquakes, bush pigs.
"Other work has shown this by observing that with a particular bark the animals react by seeming to look around for a snake, suggesting that the bark meant ‘Look, there’s a snake’."
Thanks to Katie, there may now also be a special call for ‘Look, there’s an anorak’. "I did get an alarm call out of the wild chimps in Uganda once, in the rains, the first time I put my rain jacket on. They thought that was very alarming!"
So what else do chimps talk about?
Before meeting Katie I had read with interest in her research that the subjects which primates generally "vocalise" to each other about include "group travel" and "food discovery".
So perhaps what they are really doing inside the covered part of their enclosure is discussing their next holiday or which restaurant to eat at.
While I’m sure Katie would find that very unlikely, she does say that chimps seem to engage in plenty of communication which seems "very conversational".
"A mother and her infant tend to communicate a lot with quiet grunts. It’s impossible to say what it means but they are very conversational exchanges.
"It does seem to me anecdotally at least that they must be communicating something. For example they say ‘hmmm’ to each other and then head off towards a nearby tree."
We are rudely interrupted by a scream as a bit of a commotion breaks out in the chimp enclosure behind us.
"That was a female chasing a male," Katie says, adding: "I don’t know what the male did but it’s unlikely that the female would just chase him."
Resuming our own conversation, Katie goes on to explain to me that researchers have also suggested that chimps may give different grunts to distinguish between different quality food.
Something like "Food great here, my friends" or "Food really not up to scratch in this area, I wouldn’t bother if I were you".
She says: "I am hoping to come back to the zoo and test whether the grunts given about food tell the chimps something about quality."
Disappointingly, while she believes researchers will continue to advance our knowledge of chimp communication, when I ask if she thinks we will ever be able to chat to our closest relations in the ape world, she says no.
And even if we were, from what I have seen there would not be much point, as they don’t seem remotely interested in talking back. They didn’t even say goodbye.
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