Give gibbons helium and they sing like sopranos

Want to hear the beautiful voice of a soprano? You don’t need to go to the opera. Instead, all you need is some helium and some hyped up gibbons, according to new research.

Gibbons are well known in the scientific industry for their high-pitched songs, which are apparently extremely melodious. This led one scientist to investigate how they produce their calls.

Takeshi Nishimura of Kyoto University in Japan recorded the calls of gibbons in two states – in normal air and also in air containing 20% oxygen, 30% nitrogen and 50% helium, which allowed him to investigate how the gibbon’s vocal system works.

Helium makes sound waves have a higher frequency than in normal air, and as most animals are thought to produce calls through their vocal tracts, one would expect the gibbon’s calls to become distorted by the helium.

However, Nishimura found that gibbons are affected by helium in a similar way to humans, in that the frequency of their calls is unchanged, suggesting that their sounds are made separately from the vocal tract. This trait is likely to be unique to gibbons.

The research found that when a gibbon calls, it focuses on producing a pure tone rather than adding complexity and different sounds – much in the way that when we hear a soprano, we find it difficult to make out words but can hear tones.

So there you have it – if you want to hear some beautiful singing, just get a gibbon warmed up on helium.
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