Recursive self-embedded vocal motifs in wild orangutans

Lameira, A. R., Hardus, M. E., Ravignani, A., Raimondi, T., & Gamba, M. (2024). Recursive self-embedded vocal motifs in wild orangutans. eLife, 12: RP88348. doi:10.7554/eLife.88348.3.
Recursive procedures that allow placing a vocal signal inside another of a similar kind provide a neuro-computational blueprint for syntax and phonology in spoken language and human song. There are, however, no known vocal sequences among nonhuman primates arranged in self-embedded patterns that evince vocal recursion or potential incipient or evolutionary transitional forms thereof, suggesting a neuro-cognitive transformation exclusive to humans. Here, we uncover that wild flanged male orangutan long calls feature rhythmically isochronous call sequences nested within isochronous call sequences, consistent with two hierarchical strata. Remarkably, three temporally and acoustically distinct call rhythms in the lower stratum were not related to the overarching rhythm at the higher stratum by any low multiples, which suggests that these recursive structures were neither the result of parallel non-hierarchical procedures nor anatomical artifacts of bodily constraints or resonances. Findings represent a case of temporally recursive hominid vocal combinatorics in the absence of syntax, semantics, phonology, or music. Second-order combinatorics, ‘sequences within sequences’, involving hierarchically organized and cyclically structured vocal sounds in ancient hominids may have preluded the evolution of recursion in modern language-able humans.
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