Researchers studied 636 recordings of vocalizations from 39 adult indris, a type of lemur dwelling deep in the rainforests of Madagascar. They found that lemurs could sing with categorical rhythm, meaning they can sing with different rhythm patterns, similar to humans.
In fact, they can sing with spaced-out notes similar to the chorus of "We Will Rock You."
Lemurs are a popular subject for many researchers because of their extraordinary history and biological diversity, according to the Duke Lemur Center, a non-invasive research center dedicated solely to studying lemurs.
The new study could shed light on the origins of musical rhythm and why it was developed. Researchers hope to study animals with similar musical capabilities to humans in a quest to figure out how and when musical traits appeared in our species.
"In the primate family tree they're on the exact opposite end from us," said Alanna Marron, lead educational technician at the Duke Lemur Center. "In studying lemurs and studying primate evolution, that allows us to look at the history of primates and how we evolved."
By chance, lemur ancestors floated from mainland Africa to the island of Madagascar, where they developed as a species largely isolated from the rest of the world, according to the Center.
As lemurs evolved to cope with the unique biological challenges of Madagascar, they provided researchers with a glimpse at various adaptation techniques within the species.
"There are around 100 different species on Madagascar, which is enormous," said Marron. "They make up one-fifth of the world's primate species, and they're only found on Madagascar."
Of all the species, only the black and white indri lemur species is able to sing with the rhythms found in human music.
"It's incredibly beautiful and haunting. Everyone has a different part in it. Usually, the adult pair is the one in the family group that does the most of the singing," Marron said.
The reasons lemurs developed singing capabilities are varied. Lemurs are very social creatures, Marron said, and lemur calls can signal territorial claims, reproductive potential, warning signs and more.
"If they feel scared or threatened, they will make vocalizations to warn everybody else in the area. The indri is the second loudest primate in the world, second only to howler monkeys," Marron said.
The lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center receive intellectual stimulation each week through finger painting sessions, according to Marron. The paint, which is a similar consistency to mud, will be spread across a canvas, and lemurs will step in it as they scavenge for grapes that researchers scattered across the floor.
Researchers also put out puzzle feeders, which serve as obstacle courses for the lemurs to get to their food.
"They have large brains for their body size. And we want to make sure that they're fully stimulated, fully enriched," said Marron. "We like to make them work for it."
California man steals lemur from zoo: Man accused of stealing San Francisco Zoo lemur charged with violating Endangered Species Act
You can reach the author Michelle Shen @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lemurs can sing? Research sheds light on the origins of musical rhythm