Meet the gibbon family: from the buff-cheeked (top left) to the pileated (bottom right).
How a song put these musical apes on the map and changed the life of Helen Chatterjee.
High in the forest canopy of Bawangling Reserve, Lao Tai Tai is making her presence felt. The ‘old lady’ is in fine fettle: her loud, haunting calls can send shivers down your spine. If you look up, you might just be lucky enough to glimpse her graceful form as she swings between the giant trees.
This female Hainan gibbon has lived here for perhaps 20 years, in a rapidly shrinking patch of rainforest on the island of the same name, off China’s tropical south coast. Like all gibbons, she sings for an impressive 10–20 minutes at a stretch, often longer, and soon her group will start up in reply.
Gibbon songs are unique to each species – and uniquely moving. I think that these primates have the most enchanting voices in the animal kingdom; they are often likened to opera singers, but to my mind that’s being unfair to the gibbons.
Respect your elders
When Lao Tai Tai is reunited with her family, an unusually large group of six gibbons, you get the distinct impression that the male, female and three youngsters are all looking after her. They often retrieve the old lady when she gets lost or falls behind.
It is this endearing, you could say almost human, quality that first drew me to gibbons – this, and a certain pop song by Bill Oddie and the rest of The Goodies.
Back in 1975, the comedians’ catchy tune about these small, furry apes with their elongated arms and musical voices was an instant hit, reaching number four in the UK pop charts. Soon children and adults alike were dancing to the Funky Gibbon and gibbonmania swept the UK.
As a child, I didn’t realise that gibbons’ territorial vocalisations represent the most extensive singing repertoire of any animal. But the more I found out about the lives of these musical primates, the more attached I became to them, and the more I feared for their future in the vanishing forests of southern Asia.
World of Gibbonology
Ironically, as gibbons become rarer, new genetic research is increasing the number of species recognised. Some authorities list at least 16 species, across four genera; twice as many as when I started my gibbonological research 10 years ago. This figure may yet climb higher, as subspecies are upgraded to full species, due to their genetic, if not morphological, distinctiveness.
Aside from fur colour, gibbons vary little in body shape, all being superbly adapted for arboreal life. The smallest and perhaps best-known species, the white-handed, weighs 5–7kg. At the other end of the scale, the siamang can reach 10–12kg.
This size difference has led to a misconception about gibbon diets, with many textbooks suggesting that the siamang favours a leafier diet than its diminutive relatives, which prefer fruit. In fact, if you are a gibbon, you love figs whatever your size, and will go to great lengths to find fruiting fig trees.
Gibbons are often said to form enduring monogamous relationships that last for life. But this, too, might be an oversimplification, because more and more field studies are finding evidence of extra-pair copulations. It seems that gibbons are no strangers to divorce and hooking up with new partners.
Singing in the rainforest
Gibbon songs are not just ravishingly beautiful, they are vital for primatologists, since tracking agile and extremely fast apes as they hurtle through dense foliage 30m above you is no easy task. Were it not for the gibbons’ vocal exchanges, we would frequently struggle to locate and study them in the wild.
In most gibbon species, adult males and females perform elaborate duets to proclaim their pair-bond, usually twice a day with the most intense session at dawn, but singing is also used to repel other groups from their territories and to attract mates.
Recent studies of white-handed gibbons in Khao Yai National Park
, Thailand, have deciphered the meaning of some of their many whoops, waoos and whoo-aahs. It seems that the vocalisations also serve as alarm calls: when confronted by a predator, the gibbons uttered a sudden crescendo of up to seven separate notes, which appeared to trigger evasive action by other group members.
Gibbon song - in unexpected places
But for me, it is the powerful and dramatic full-length vocalisations of gibbons such as Lao Tai Tai that have a special poignancy. They always remind me of one of my most memorable gibbon encounters – not in a hot and humid rainforest, but at a dinner table in a smart London restaurant.
The occasion was my PhD viva, a daunting verbal examination. Fortunately, the tension was relieved when I was unexpectedly given a private rendition of gibbon calls by my examiner, Dr David Chivers, the world’s leading gibbon song impersonator.
He had mastered an extraordinary variety of their sounds, reflecting his vast knowledge of gibbon biology spanning 40 years. The other diners must have thought we were mad.
Which brings me neatly back to The Goodies’ wacky smash hit
“Ooh, ooh, ooh, the funky gibbon…
To do the funky gibbon
Drop one arm down by your knees
And the other arm
Reach up to the trees
Let your wrist go limp
Like a bent baboon.”
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