The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bonnie, The Whistling Orangutan

Whistling Orangutan Amazes Scientists: A new talent has been discovered at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. An orangutan with a penchant for whistling has scientists, and visitors alike, marveling over the evolution of speech.

WASHINGTON -- Every morning, when the crowds at Washington National Zoo start to gather, Bonnie the orangutan makes her appearance.

"She likes to take her time and watch the public. She is very much a people watcher," Erin Stromberg, Bonnie's keeper, said as the 32-year-old orangutan proudly dangles and poses on a cable that is high over the heads of her admirers.

Bonnie is the second oldest and perhaps most theatrical orangutan in the nation's capitol.

"She likes to mimic what we do so she quite often washes windows or sweeps the floor, but she is very inquisitive and is always studying what we do,"Stromberg said.

Bonnie also learned one more skill that has caused quite a stir in the scientific community -- she can whistle.

"I actually did not think it was possible for orangutans to learn how to whistle," said zoo visitor Tara Greene.

While chimpanzees and orangutans have been trained to whistle in the past, Bonnie's ability is highly uncommon as she learned on her own without rewards from human trainers.

"I don't find it too uncommon as far as the possibilities of learning from all the people that stop by. As you watch little kids develop, they learn. I learned how to whistle from my father," said zoo visitor Brad Adams.

Yet, primatologists sayy human ability and apes, vastly differ in this realm. According to primatologists great apes, like chimpanzees and orangutans, can never speak because they do not have the type of vocal cords humans do. However, the fact that Bonnie can learn how to whistle on her own is groundbreaking because it provides insight into how human speech evolved.

In Bonnie's case, Aside from lacking motivation via a reward, the simple act of whistling takes a good amount of control to achieve.

The ape would have to know how to use her lips and control her breath to make a sound.

Stromberg says knowing Bonnie's personality, she is not surprised the orangutan learned to whistle by herself.

"It is kind of her nature. She is very inquisitive. She never misses a beat, and I think she (likes) challenges."

Born in captivity and raised by humans, Bonnie has always been in close contact with her more evolved cousins; Stromberg thinks Bonnie picked up her famous skill from hearing a zookeeper whistle.

Her whistling pastime first began in the 1980s, says Dr. Karyl Swartz of the Great Ape Trust. According to Swartz, the scientific community at the time was not interested in studying ape language. As a result, Bonnie went unnoticed, until two decades later when Bonnie's musical talent has finally become a hot research topic.

Zookeepers and scientists from the Great Ape Trust, including Swartz, experimented with Bonnie's whistle to see how much she could control it.

A researcher would give some short whistles then long ones. Bonnie was able to imitate the whistles of varying lengths -- giving scientists more insight to the evolution of speech.

While the research continues around her, Bonnie continues on, whistling her days away. Although she will probably not win any musical contests with her whistles, she's already a star in the eyes of her fans who come around the country to see the talented whistling orangutan.

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