Gorillas may use their laryngeal air sacs for whinny-type vocalizations and male display

Marcus Perlman, Roberta Salmi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Great apes and siamangs—but not humans—possess laryngeal air sacs, suggesting that they were lost over hominin evolution. The absence of air sacs in humans may hold clues to speech evolution, but little is known about their functions in extant apes. We investigated whether gorillas use their air sacs to produce the staccato ‘growling’ of the silverback chest beat display. This hypothesis was formulated after viewing a nature documentary showing a display by a silverback western gorilla (Kingo). As Kingo growls, the video shows distinctive vibrations in his chest and throat under which the air sacs extend. We also investigated whether other similarly staccato vocalizations—the whinny, sex whinny, and copulation grunt—might also involve the air sacs. To examine these hypotheses, we collected an opportunistic sample of video and audio evidence from research records and another documentary of Kingo’s group, and from videos of other gorillas found on YouTube. Analysis shows that the four vocalizations are each emitted in rapid pulses of a similar frequency (8–16 pulses per second), and limited visual evidence indicates that they may all occur with upper torso vibrations. Future research should determine how consistently the vibrations co-occur with the vocalizations, whether they are synchronized, and their precise location and timing. Our findings fit with the hypothesis that apes—especially, but not exclusively males—use their air sacs for vocalizations and displays related to size exaggeration for sex and territory. Thus changes in social structure, mating, and sexual dimorphism might have led to the obsolescence of the air sacs and their loss in hominin evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)126-140
JournalJournal of Language Evolution
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2017


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