Why do White-handed Gibbons sing?

Yoda and Snowflake can regularly be heard vocalizing, or “singing”, in their exhibit near our entrance. Visitors are welcomed from the parking lot by their call and is a well-known sound around the Utica Zoo. But the question begs to be asked; why? We will look at the basic reasons Gibbons vocalize and how despite being born into human care they still demonstrate a natural behavior that is crucial to their own survival in the wild.

White-handed Gibbons vocalize for numerous reasons. Yoda and Snowflake are most vocal in the mornings when they come outside into their exhibit. This is a common practice found in the wild where a family group will come together in their territory and vocalize back and forth to establish their space. The breeding pair will often duet, which is regularly heard from Yoda and Snowflake. This call is most well known and many of our visitors can replicate it from memory!

Additionally, Gibbons will also sing and vocalize to communicate with each other across their range. In the high canopy of Southeast Asian jungles, Gibbon calls can be heard over a mile away. This communication across distances will help Gibbons understand where the rest of their family unit is located, or if an intruder has entered their space. The calls from a Gibbon will change based on the situation. A communication call may sound one pitch and have a certain cadence, while an alert to an intruder or predator will sound completely different.

What is most interesting about Yoda and Snowflake’s calls is that despite being born into human care, they still continue to practice these behaviors. They don’t need to locate each other as they share a den and exhibit space and they don’t need to worry about predators, so why do they continue to do so? We may never know for sure, but we like to think that they are singing to each other as a bonding practice. The pair has been here at the Zoo together since 1995 and they are particularly bonded. They can regularly be seen practicing other bonding behaviors such as grooming, and the consistency of their duet from day to day leads us to believe they are singing to each other to strengthen their bond, just like Johnny and June!

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