This post was updated Sept. 24 at 10:52 p.m.
There’s no need for an alarm clock at the Gibbon Conservation Center.
At sunrise every morning, Pepper the gibbon usually begins singing, and many of the 38 other gibbons join together in harmony.
Gibbons are referred to as the “songbirds” of the primate family because of their distinct vocalizations that can carry for miles. These songs and their specific function in conservation efforts are the focus of the research conducted by UCLA ethnomusicology Ph.D. candidate Tyler Yamin, who conducts his research at the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita. Yamin’s work focuses specifically on the ways in which conservationists listen to gibbons and use their interpretations in their conservation work.
“One of the underlying aspects of my project is that I’m not, as a researcher, trying to say what gibbons are doing,” Yamin said. “What I’m trying to do in my project is not analyze gibbon song according to my own notions of what might be important or not, but trying to learn from the people I’m studying (and) how they hear gibbon song.”
Yamin’s background is in traditional Indonesian gamelan music – orchestral music played largely on ornate bronze xylophones – and his master’s research project focused on a gamelan group in Bali and the instruments they used. In Balinese culture, the instruments in the orchestra are considered to have a soul, and Yamin researched indigenous cultures’ conceptions of personhood. This research encompassed human-animal studies, and his readings mentioned the gibbon, which is endemic to the same region he specialized in and which he had never heard of before.
Intrigued by the gibbon, Yamin then took an introductory primate behavior class at UCLA, in which he learned about the nearby Gibbon Conservation Center. When he visited, Yamin realized that his ethnomusicology background specially situated him to conduct research on the musical primates. Gibbon song, he said, has two main purposes, though the function is still being debated. One is territorial – gibbon families sing coordinated songs together to vocally negotiate territorial borders with other families, Yamin said. The other is to strengthen relationships among family members, as more cohesive song can often indicate more engaged listening and family organization.
Yamin hopes to expand the boundaries of what is considered to be typical musical practice, as ethnomusicology focuses on the music of different cultures, but has historically broadened to study traditions from around the world, he said. Yamin’s research offers an intriguing way to look at how humans understand gibbons, said professor of ethnomusicology Helen Rees, who is also Yamin’s dissertation advisor.
“Most ethnomusicological research traditionally has been done through fieldwork and through archival research, so (Yamin) is certainly doing plenty of fieldwork,” Rees said. “Obviously, the individuals he is interacting with and whose sonic manifestations he is looking at are not just humans, but other primates.”
During the daily care of the gibbons, Gabriella Skollar, the director of the Gibbon Conservation Center, and others at the center use auditory cues to assess how the gibbons are feeling, a primary point of interest for Yamin. For example, the gibbons make feeding calls at mealtimes or sound an alarm call if predators, such as snakes, approach the enclosure. When two gibbons are paired for mating, their compatibility as a couple is predicated on their ability to coordinate and sing a duet.
While some in the field might try to assess more physical characteristics, such as the population number or distance between the gibbon families, a caretaker like Skollar might listen for the individual sounds and nuances that define an individual gibbon.
“All these different vocalizations help us understand them, and they are communicating so we know what they are saying,” Skollar said. “They are expressing their emotions and fears, their happiness.”
After Yamin’s study of the practices at the Gibbon Conservation Center, he said his next step will be to work with an environmental conservation nonprofit called the Borneo Nature Foundation in Indonesia, which studies gibbons in their natural habitat. The group is based in the Sabangau Forest, and members of the indigenous Dayak community who work on the field staff use many traditional ways of engaging with the forest to conduct scientific research that Yamin hopes to learn more about.
Yamin said he feels a certain sense of urgency in the project. All the gibbons at the Gibbon Conservation Center are vulnerable or endangered, and the gibbons in the wild face deforestation and encroaching farming desires. Most recently, while fires raged in the Amazon rainforest, even larger fires engulfed the forests of Borneo. At the same time, the Gibbon Conservation Center is under threat from developers who want to push the center out in order to build housing developments, Yamin said.
“You could call it a symmetry … that the gibbon center and that the gibbons here in Southern California are facing the exact same pressures or causes of loss of habitat or location that the gibbons in the wild are, which is consumer capitalism and the desire to turn land to make the most money off land you can,” Yamin said. “Everywhere the gibbons are, there’s money to be made in removing them.”
Yamin said he hopes awareness increases for gibbon conservation efforts, which need more people on the ground protecting and researching gibbons before it’s too late. Humans could also stand to learn from the ways gibbons listen to each other’s songs and the ways scientists and caretakers listen to the vocalizations of the gibbons, he said. In essence, gibbon song exemplifies how audible connection can bridge the divide between entities thought to be in opposition.
“There’s something really valuable in our ears and the approach of listening,” Yamin said. “I hope this project contributes something to environmental justice, showing how important it is to understand what it means to listen to nonhuman animals and engage with them in possibly more productive ways.”