Lemurs do the Funky Gibbon

2 minute read

We still know don’t why we’ve got rhythm, but we’re not the only ones.

“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak,” according to 17th-century poet William Congreve.

The ability to create music, and more specifically “rhythm”, has long been considered to be a uniquely human trait among the primates.

Exactly why and how Homo sapiens developed musical abilities is subject to competing theories, but what is not disputed is the wide range of positive effects melody and rhythm has on our mental wellbeing, as Congreve noted.

But are we really alone when it comes to music making?   

Not so, say a team of Italian researchers. It’s a trait we naked apes share with a “singing” primate called the “indri indri”, a critically endangered species of lemur living in the rainforests of Madagascar.

Over 12 years, the researchers from Turin visited the rainforest and recorded songs from 20 indri groups, living in their natural habitat.

Members of an indri family group tend to sing together, in harmonised duets and choruses. The team found that indri songs had classic rhythmic categories (both 1:1 and 1:2), as well as a “ritardando”, or slowing down, feature found in several musical traditions. And while male and female indri songs had different tempos, the songs showed the same rhythmic patterns.

The boffins believe this is the first evidence of a “rhythmic universal” in a non-human mammal.

Why the indri have developed this skill is yet to be determined, but it is possible they developed the ability independently from humans as our last common ancestor was mooching about a whopping 77 million or more years ago. It could be that these lemurs use rhythm to make it easier to produce and process their songs, or even to learn them.

“Looking for musical features in other species allows us to build an ‘evolutionary tree’ of musical traits and understand how rhythm capacities originated and evolved in humans,” the researchers say.

We found this sample online and, while it has a piercing sort of charm, we feel confident that indri music won’t be hitting a human Top 40 any time soon.

What your Back Page correspondent is now looking forward to is research which explains why some humans insist on clapping on the first and third beats instead of the second and fourth.

If you see something that makes you want to shake your booty, beat out that rhythm to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au

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