Monkeys could talk?


If you’ve ever seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the 2011 prequel to the 1968 science fiction film, you might recall the scene when Caesar, the chimpanzee with increased intelligence courtesy of human experimentation, utters his first word. Caesar is being held in a kind of animal shelter for apes, where the proprietors aren’t very kind to their residents. Tired of the abuse he and his fellow apes receive, Caesar decides to lead the monkeys in a revolt against their captors. At one point one of the guards attempts to discipline Caesar with a baton, when the ape grabs his arm.

“Get your stinking paw off me, you damn dirty ape,” says the guard. Caesar, who has before now remained silent, stands up tall and defiant, and lets out his first ever human speech: “NO!”

While the humans are stunned into inaction, the monkeys make their escape.

In our world, up to this point, no non-human primate has ever uttered a word. But a fairly new study published last December in Science Advances is claiming that monkeys might actually have the ability to speak similarly to humans. A team of four researchers studied the vocal tracts of rhesus macaque monkeys, and concluded that, contrary to what previous researchers found, monkeys have the physical capability to form speech-like sounds. However, they say their brains won’t allow for it.

The researchers used x-rays on rhesus macaque monkeys to see how their vocal tracts moved during various actions, and to record the sounds they made. They watched them while they moved, ate, and made various noises. Then they made computer models of everything they saw. When they studied the models, they came up with possible speech sounds that could be made, based on the shapes of the monkeys’ vocal tracts and their similarity to those of humans. From all this, the researchers conclude that the vocal tracts of the monkeys could allow them to produce “thousands of words.” The only thing that seems to be in the way is their brains, which the researchers say lack the right wiring.

The authors of this study aren’t the first ones to ask whether monkeys could speak like humans. Toward the end of the 1960s, an experimenter molded a plaster cast of a vocal tract from the carcass of a rhesus macaque. However, from his efforts he concluded that the shape of the tract was too different from that of humans, and would never allow for the production of speech.

The authors of this new study disagree. They contend that the rise of speech in humans is more likely the result of evolutionary changes in our brains than changes in our vocal tracts. Even now, though, there is still debate, with some scientists challenging the new study’s assertive claims. But the authors of the new study don’t claim that monkeys could speak exactly like humans if they only had the right brains- after all, there are still many differences between the vocal tracts of rhesus macaque monkeys and our own. But they are saying that monkeys, at least macaques anyway, could hypothetically produce many of the same sounds we do.

As is the case with most studies, this one raises more questions. For example, if macaque monkeys could potentially utter human phrases, could other monkeys do it too? Could a gorilla or an orangutan physically produce human speech? What about chimpanzees? Hopefully more studies in the future will answer these questions. And of course, there’s the big question: could humans eventually create a procedure that would make apes smart enough to talk, like in Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Seems like a bit of a stretch. Seems for now we’ll just have to go to the movies to see primates speaking like people.


Source: Fitch, W. T., B. De Boer, N. Mathur, and A. A. Ghazanfar. “Monkey Vocal Tracts Are Speech-ready.” Science Advances 2.12 (2016): n. pag. Web.



Hi all, it’s been a while since we posted anything, with all of the end of the school year business and our founding members now scattered across the globe. However, I assure you that the Science Observer blog is still a thing, and updates are coming soon.
We started this blog as a project for a class at the University of Maine. Now that the class is over, we would like to continue doing what we do- reporting on some of the most interesting and groundbreaking research going on at UMaine’s flagship university.
With that in mind, we have a few things we will be putting up on the blog in the immediate future. First, we will be posting a write-up of our interview with Tyler Carrier, an undergraduate Marine Science Major and invertebrate larvae enthusiast who graduated this past May and hopes to bring his research to new places as a graduate student. Then, we will be posting an update on one of our very own, the Science Observer’s Tadhg Moore, who is currently in Alaska studying the effects of climate change on glaciers.
After these posts are made, the search will begin for our next candidate. With that in mind, if any of our followers know someone at the University who is doing something interesting, let us know!
So far the blog has focused on graduate and undergraduate students, and we hope to continue that, but we are also looking at the possibility of speaking with professors and other research faculty.
Talk to you soon!

Podcast – Interview with Annie Boucher

Interview with Annie Boucher, a graduate student at the University of Maine whose focus of study is the glaciers in South-East Alaska. She is researching the interactions between climate, tectonics and erosion on these glaciers.
She discusses her different approaches to understanding this area, what it is about this area that she enjoys and her experience so far out on the glaciers.

Check out the written article here.

Uplifting & Ice-Breaking Research: Annie Boucher Discusses her Glacier Research in Alaska

Last Thursday I met with Annie Boucher, an enthusiastic graduate student who is part of the Earth Sciences program at the University of Maine. Brooklyn-born Annie is still assimilating herself to the harsh Maine environment, but she doesn’t really mind the snow, being well adjusted to even colder places. Glaciers are her focus after all, and it doesn’t get much colder than that. Boucher has had great experience with glaciers, particularly the ones of South-East Alaska. For the past three summers, she has taken part in the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), an educational program for students at the upper level high school to college graduate level that spends eight weeks traversing the glaciers outside Juneau while conducting research and learning expeditionary skills. All these skills will come in handy for her as this is where her research will be focused.

Annie Boucher skiing on Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska.

Annie Boucher skiing on Taku Glacier in Juneau, Alaska.

As a graduate student, the goal of her research is to study the interactions between tectonics, climate and erosion in South-Eastern Alaska. Currently not a lot is known about the tectonics of this area, so she hopes her research will provide the foundation for understanding these factors. What also makes this area even more appealing is that it not only has some of the fastest moving glaciers, but it also has the most active tectonics. This means that there is plenty more to learn about the rates of erosion on particular parts of the bedrock, which if known will make it easier for researchers to create more accurate models as they try to predict what will happen to the region in the future.

snow pit on ze glacier

Annie Boucher (blue) digs a snow pit to carry out mass-balance measurements within a glacier.

This summer Boucher will combine her work with JIRP with gathering data for her graduate research. She is buzzing with excitement to get back on the glacier again and just last week purchased some gear for the trip. She was also excited to be joined by a couple of her good friends, who will be accompanying her on the trip. “Funnily enough two great guys whom I’m great friends with will be joining me this summer in Juneau, and I’m really looking forward to sharing this experience with them,” she told the Observer. What Boucher really enjoys about this area of research is that the interactions between the glaciers and the rock are, at the most basic level, “simple, immediate and intuitive”. The methods she described require a combination of different fields, including the application of engineering concepts to glaciology. While it has certainly proved difficult at times, she feels that it is a challenge she is more than capable of handling. “This is a new process, applying these particular [engineering] methods to glacial erosion,” she said. “So when you start to see results, you feel excited about being at the front of this research.” Although she has been faced with what she calls the “steep icy learning slope” of computer modeling and

Annie working hard on her computer modelling.

Annie working on computer modeling.

programming, she remains confident in her ability and described how people within the department have been more than willing to offer a helping hand when she needed it. She speaks particularly highly of her adviser, Dr. Peter Koons, highlighting how his approach of questioning everything is really pushing her to improve her critical thinking and her approach to various problems. Boucher is a graduate student who shows great enthusiasm for her field of work so I can definitely see her work being key in uncovering some of the mystery that still exists around tectonics and climate. With the glaciers in this area retreating quite rapidly, this is definitely an area where we will see some interesting discoveries, so we will be keeping a close eye on her research project.

-Tadhg Moore.

See the Podcast of the full interview here

Grad Student from Assam, India Studies US Waste Management Systems

Anish Das is a UMaine graduate student from India with a unique research vision.

Anish explains his point during the interview.

Anish discusses his research into Waste Management Systems.

Currently in his second semester in the school of environmental sciences’ graduate program, his research is focused on waste management systems, specifically how US practices in waste management might be applied to his home country.

India has long had problems with waste, much of which owes to its exploding population. With over 1.27 billion people as of 2014, India is the second most populous nation in the world. Despite this, there is a deficiency of concrete waste disposal practices.

“People do not take it as seriously as it should be taken. There is a lot of dumping,” says Das. He says that unlike in the US, where a company disposes of people’s waste, in most places in India, there isn’t a definitive system in place to make sure waste is dealt with properly. Mostly, he says, the responsibility goes to “the municipality and the small-time players within a community”, and even when waste is collected, it usually goes to a landfill, where it can be neglected over long periods of time.


Observer reporter Chase Brunton (left) listens to Anish detail India’s waste management problem.

While he’s coming up with goals as he goes, his current one is to find out as much as possible about the American model for waste management, and to try to understand how a similar model might be used by India’s cities. To do this, he searches for data, statistics, and trends in waste generation and management for three cities in India and in the US with similar population dynamics. The US cities he is studying are New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, which he will compare to New Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai, three of the most heavily populated cities in India. Das says he is learning a lot about the US and his country. However, he does foresee some challenges down the road. For example, in many places in India, it isn’t always easy to access data on waste processes. One of the roadblocks to waste management in India and other developing nations has been the fact that individual communities often have various indigenous ways of removing waste. Das says it can be hard to bring these various methods together and come up with a unifying system.

Nevertheless, he says there is some hope for the future. India is in the midst of a “Clean India” movement, which was initiated by the country’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. “There are bright signs for the future. [Prime Minister Modi] is very keen on people gaining knowledge and coming and putting it into practice. The way ahead is better than the way before,” he says.

With a project like this one, Das says his research is just the beginning.

“My research here is tied down to studying the American model and doing a comparative analysis, but I’d like to go on to try to replicate the level of [US] efficiency in my own country.”

-Chase Brunton

For the video of the interview click here.

For the podcast of the full interview click here.

Podcast #02 – Anish Das

An interview with Anish Das, a graduate student who is working on a research paper comparing the waste management models of India and the USA. This in-depth interview deals with his research project, waste management issues in India and we learn a bit about Anish himself. He openly discusses details about how he is going about gathering his data, what obstacles he anticipates and offers his opinion on the current American Model of Waste Management.

Check out the video from this interview in the Videos section.

Toxic Soils Because of Plants? No Morra That Please!

On Friday last I got the opportunity to sit down with the newest graduate student at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, Brian Morra. Originally from Idaho, Brian has come to Maine to pursue a graduate degree program. Morra has only just recently returned from a two year stint working with the Peace Corps but was eager to get back into his studies.

Morra poses for a picture within his office sporting his favorite cycling shirt.

Morra poses for a picture within his office sporting his favorite cycling shirt.

Morra received his Bachelor’s in Science in Geology at the University of Idaho, during this time there he opted to spend a year at Fort Lewis College to pursue his interest in cycling. He was featured in a prominent cycling magazine alongside many of other cycling greats such as Lance Armstrong. Morra is an avid cyclist and is anxiously waiting for the snow to melt “Maine has some of the most beautiful cycling routes in the country. So as soon as that snow melts I’m jumping on my bike and hitting the road!”. And to be honest it doesn’t look like he will have to wait much longer.

When asked about why he chose Maine Morra explained that funding was a key issue that helped shape his decision making and how the University was willing to offer him a job as a Teaching Assistant. So this means he assists in the teaching of Geology to undergraduate students and Morra explained how his interest in teaching grew from his time in Peru working within local communities during his time serving the Peace Corps.

The topic of his research while here will be studying the effect of plant growth on mineral dissolution kinetics, basically how plants break down their mineral substrates to obtain nutrients. This is an area that hasn’t had a lot of research so Morra is keen to get working on this project. His hypothesis is that as the chemistry of the atmosphere changes this will affect plants considerably and could in fact lead to plants releasing metals into the soil and at a possibly toxic level.

Morra working hard on his computer.

Morra working hard on his computer.

A highlight of being a graduate student is that you can pick and choose classes in areas of study that appeal to you“, Morra explains. He also talked about how Chemistry has always been his favorite subject since middle school and now he has the freedom to take even more Chemistry classes which has him very excited.

Morra also confided with me about how a bit overwhelming taking on this research project can be. But he says that this program has given him a more defined and clear sense of direction about how to approach research work and feels that he is moving in the right direction. Throughout the interview Morra displayed a high level of confidence and this characteristic will definitely carry him far. As when I questioned him about the future he talked about ideas of maybe taking a PhD to further or looking for a job but he made sure to reassure me that for the next couple of years he will be wholly focused on his research here at the University of Maine.

-Tadhg Moore

You can listen to the whole interview in the Podcasts section of our website or check out some of the photos here.