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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Concordance between vocal and genetic diversity in crested gibbons

Van Ngoc Thinh1, Chris Hallam2, Christian Roos13 and Kurt Hammerschmidt4*

Author Affiliations

1 Primate Genetics Laboratory, German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, 37077 Goettingen, Germany

2 WCS Laos, PO BOX 6712, Vientiane, Lao PDR

3 Gene Bank of Primates, German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, 37077 Goettingen, Germany

4 Cognitive Ethology Laboratory, German Primate Center, Kellnerweg 4, 37077 Goettingen, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:36  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-36

Published: 7 February 2011



Gibbons or small apes are, next to great apes, our closest living relatives, and form the most diverse group of contemporary hominoids. A characteristic trait of gibbons is their species-specific song structure, which, however, exhibits a certain amount of inter- and intra-individual variation. Although differences in gibbon song structure are routinely applied as taxonomic tool to identify subspecies and species, it remains unclear to which degree acoustic and phylogenetic differences are correlated. To trace this issue, we comparatively analyse song recordings and mitochondrial cytochrome b gene sequence data from 22 gibbon populations representing six of the seven crested gibbon species (genus Nomascus). In addition, we address whether song similarity and geographic distribution can support a recent hypothesis about the biogeographic history of crested gibbons.


The acoustic analysis of 92 gibbon duets confirms the hypothesised concordance between song structure and phylogeny. Based on features of male and female songs, we can not only distinguish between N. nasutus, N. concolor and the four southern species (N. leucogenys, N. siki, N. annamensis, N. gabriellae), but also between the latter by applying more detailed analysis. In addition to the significant correlation between song structure and genetic similarity, we find a similar high correlation between song similarity and geographic distance.


The results show that the structure of crested gibbon songs is not only a reliable tool to verify phylogenetic relatedness, but also to unravel geographic origins. As vocal production in other nonhuman primate species appears to be evolutionarily based, it is likely that loud calls produced by other species can serve as characters to elucidate phylogenetic relationships.