Humans are not the only primates who whisper

Illustration for article titled Humans are not the only primates who whisper

Zoologists know that some animals like to whisper, or do something like it, under certain circumstances. But it's never been observed in nonhuman primates... until now.


The primate in question is the cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus), one of the world's smallest primates. It lives in the tropical forests of northwestern Columbia in South America.

Its whisper-like behavior was discovered at New York City's Central Park Zoo during an experiment intended to record the alarm calls of tamarins when afraid of people. But instead, when a distrusted zoo worker walked in, the tamarins fell silent.


Later, when the researchers analyzed audio spectrograms, they realized that the tamarins were in fact communicating, but at an extremely hushed level (low amplitude vocalizations):

The researchers, Rachel Morrison and Diana Reiss, say it's potential evidence of convergent evolution in communication strategies among highly social and cooperative species.

Read the entire study at Zoo Biology: "Whisper-like behavior in non-human primate."


Related: A Beluga whale mimicking human speech.


Image: Nagel Photography/Shutterstock.

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Paul Banta

I've had a tabby cat that whispered—usually when he stalked birds (usually from the inside of a bay window). He crouched down and he worked his jaw rapidly, making a soft, voiceless, excited, cackling sound. I thought it was adorable! I couldn't tell if he was trying to "whisper" at the birds "fake" a birdcall, or if it was just some odd behavior he picked up living with humans. I've never seen another cat try to "talk" like that though, but I'm sure they're out there.

Also, had a companion dog that developed whisper-like behavior, but not until she was three-or-four years old. To wake me up (to go outside for "necessaries") without jumping on the bed to startle me or bark loud to wake me up, she would stand beside the bed and make soft, grunting sounds (not growling or whining), gradually getting louder until I'd wake up before actually pawing the bed to wake me up (I faked being asleep to check this behavior out). Very polite, but not any different from a kid trying their best to gently wake a parent to take them to the bathroom either. It was clear the dog was trying to communicate with just me without waking the house or startling me too much. Innate behavior or just something she learned from cause-and-effect, seems pretty damn smart.