Orangutans show active voicing through a membranophone
Active voicing – voluntary control over vocal fold oscillation – is essential for speech. Nonhuman great apes can learn new consonant- and vowel-like calls, but active voicing by our closest relatives has historically been the hardest evidence to concede to. To resolve this controversy, a diagnostic test for active voicing is reached here through the use of a membranophone: a musical instrument where a player’s voice flares a membrane’s vibration through oscillating air pressure. We gave the opportunity to use a membranophone to six orangutans (with no effective training), three of whom produced a priori novel (species-atypical) individual-specific vocalizations. After 11 and 34 min, two subjects were successful by producing their novel vocalizations into the instrument, hence, confirming active voicing. Beyond expectation, however, within <1 hour, both subjects found opposite strategies to significantly alter their voice duration and frequency to better activate the membranophone, further demonstrating plastic voice control as a result of experience with the instrument. Results highlight how individual differences in vocal proficiency between great apes may affect performance in experimental tests. Failing to adjust a test’s difficulty level to individuals’ vocal skill may lead to false negatives, which may have largely been the case in past studies now used as “textbook fact” for great ape “missing” vocal capacities. Results qualitatively differ from small changes that can be caused in innate monkey calls by intensive months-long conditional training. Our findings verify that active voicing beyond the typical range of the species’ repertoire, which in our species underpins the acquisition of new voiced speech sounds, is not uniquely human among great apes.