Mother gorillas use a
type of "baby talk" when communicating with infants, according to scientists.
The team studied captive western lowland gorillas, watching and filming the
animals as they interacted.
These animals have a wide repertoire of
communication gestures, so the team focused on facial expressions and hand
signals used in play.
They published their findings in the American
journal of Primatology.
Eva Maria Luef from the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, led the research.
her colleague Katja Liebal filmed 120 hours of footage of the gorillas at Leipzig
Zoo and Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks in the UK.
gorilla mother repeatedly tells her infant to "stop it" by laying her hand on
Analysing this footage revealed that, when they played with
infants, adult females used more tactile gestures than they used with other
adults; they would "touch, stroke and lightly slap" the youngsters.
also received more repetition," explained Dr Luef.
She described one
particularly motherly gesture which the researchers call "hand-on".
where mothers put the flat hand of their hand on top of the [infant's]head,"
said Dr Luef. "It means 'stop it.'"
� Gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and humans
all belong to the great ape family
� The best of the non-human
communicators are the chimpanzees. In the wild, the animals use up to 66distinct
gestures, each with a different meaning.
� Find out how chimps
consider who they are addressing before they call out
Gorillas often use
this gesture with one another; it is a signal that appears to mean that an animal
has "had enough". But with an infant, the female would repeat the action several
The researchers describe this motherly communication as "non-vocal motherese".
They say that it helps infants to build the repertoire of signals they will
use as adults, in order to communicate with the rest of the gorilla group.
"It also shows that older animals possess a certain awareness of the
infants' immature communication skills," said Dr Luef.
Learning to talk
Prof Richard Byrne from the University of St Andrews said that he doubted the
research shed any light on the evolution of human "babytalk".
The researcher explained the importance of the way in which adults talk to
babies, describing it as a "natural but very smart way of conveying the details
of how we construct complex grammar".
Bu the added that, since gorillas do
not acquire language, they have "no need of such an adaptation".
suspect this is not the same at all," he said.
"[But]it is interesting
that the adults gesture in a different way to babies than among each other.
"This suggest that adults understand that communicating to infants is going
to be tricky, and plan their gesturing accordingly."