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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Have you ever heard a ‘snough’?

Gorillas at Atlanta Zoo have been seen to open their mouths wide and let out a loud theatrical noise, somewhere between a sneeze and a cough. In a recent study, anthropologist Roberta Salmi recorded the response of eight gorillas in three different settings to observe this phenomenon. The first setting, a bucket of grapes outside the enclosure; the second, a keeper in place of the grapes; and the third, both the keeper and the grapes. The gorillas ‘snoughed’ most when both the keeper and grapes were present.

“Coughing and sneezing are signs of a cold, which are signals that caregivers pay specific attention to”, says Salmi, who leads the primate behavioural ecology lab at the University of Georgia. In this instance, the gorillas seem to have noticed that a ‘snough’ in particular grabs the attention of the keeper.

‘Snoughing’ has never been observed in the wild, and this is the first time that ‘complex vocal learning’, where novel sounds are learnt through imitation, has been observed in captive gorillas. Significantly, if a greater understanding of primate communication can be gained, it might help to explain how human language emerged in the first place.

Libby Brown

Image credit: Wade Tregaskis

Image licence: Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The original image has been cropped