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December 29, 2006

Off-Key Primate Coverage? It's a Gibbon.

Gibbons, part of the so-called lesser apes, can rearrange the syllables in their mating duets to form alarm calls. If "bap-bap-be-bop" tells the world that they are in love, then "bap-be-bap-bop" says that they see something scary. (Actual gibbons sound less like scat singers and more like this.) This discovery is paper-worthy because it may mean that gibbons are the first non-human ape to use what are known as functionally-referential calls; vastly simplified, it suggests they possess a basic form of syntax. But if you look at the coverage of this discovery in the press, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the major finding was that gibbons sing when they are scared.

"Turns out humans aren't the only primates using songs to warn of life's dangers and travails," goes the lead to the Associated Press article featured on CNN. Gibbons "have been found to communicate threats from predators with bird-like singing," reads the Times Online. But researchers have known about this "singing" since they first started studying gibbons early last century. Besides, humans still have no idea as to which vocalizations count as singing and which don't. (I'm looking at you, Alanis.)

Perhaps the press release that accompanies the journal article is to blame. While it does include the meat of the story, it leads with this: "It is well known that animals use song as a way of attracting mates, but researchers have found that gibbons have developed an unusual way of scaring off predators—by singing to them." How do we know that the reporters were getting their cues from the press release? Several of the quotes in the AP article come directly from it.

And while it is fascinating to learn that gibbons have developed this level of communication, none of these articles even mention that several monkey species, generally considered less intelligent, have far more complex referential signals. (For more on the difference between apes and monkeys, see this Gelf piece.) One article that mentions all of these things is over at LiveScience.com. The writer, Charles Choi, not only deigns to speak with the authors of the paper, he also explains the vagaries inherent in field work. (The researchers' predator models—which seem to have been effective—included plastic tubes used to mimic pythons and a costumed man playing a tiger.)

On a related note: Several sites (Gelf included) use Google's AdSense program to serve up ads related to their content. In the case of the gibbon article on CNN linked to above, one of the ads that got prominent placement is for autographed memorabilia from Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons.

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