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News > January 2015 > Orangutan at Cologne Zoo mimics human speech

Orangutan at Cologne Zoo mimics human speech

In order to communicate for more food, Tilda has reportedly learnt to whistle to zookeepers, and has been recorded making two calls unknown to other orangutans. This includes clicking her tongue, which enables her to make sounds similar to those used by humans when pronouncing voiceless consonants, such as the letters ‘t’, ‘p’ and ‘k’. She can also produce grunts that are alike to the vowel sounds made by humans.

Those on European river cruises visiting Cologne can spend a day at the zoo, and see a number of exotic animals, including the orangutans such as Tilda. The zoo currently houses more than 10,000 animals including giant anteaters, elephants, hippos, snow leopards and cheetahs, and is one of the oldest zoos in Germany.

Recorded human sounds are unique to Tilda the orangutan

It is thought that the researcher’s findings when studying Tilda mean that they may be able to discover more about the origins of human speech. This could potentially reveal the origins of vowels and consonants, which have long baffled researchers. This also proves that orangutans have more capabilities to learn than originally assumed.

As zookeepers do not know what happened to Tilda during an eight year period of her life when she was captured, behaviour such as clapping her hands and arm-waving may have been learnt if she was trained for human entertainment.

Although extraordinary, previous orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas have been noted to communicate with humans on a high level, such as Bonnie the adult orangutan bred in captivity at the National Zoo in DC. However, unlike Bonnie, Tilda’s sounds are direct and are used to draw the attention of the keepers at Cologne Zoo.

Image Credit: Trisha Shears (

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