Most humans, at some point in their life, will face that notorious let’s-get-to-know-you question that begins:
If you could be any animal…
The person asking this question usually brings to it a certain investigative passion that cannot be diffused with a shrug: they really want to know.
Once you’ve coughed up the name of your beast, as if it were not disorienting enough to contemplate life as a different species, the questioner wants you to justify the choice. Liking cats won’t do; you must defend your enthusiasm for catness with an analysis of its pros and cons and an explanation of why that condition is right for you. Vagueness will leave you open to attack:
“Why a cat?”
“I guess they’re… independent, kind of like… me.”
“And how is that?”
It strikes me that a winning response to such animal-identity interrogation — a way to show a deep personal connection with your preferred species — would be to adopt its own style of vocalization:
“Why a cat?”
The meow tactic — let’s call it that — presupposes that you, the human, are able to replicate an utterance of your ideal animal, and this depends on which animal it is.
When I was a kid, my prize possession was a collection of mail-order Safari Cards by Editions Recontre — a new bunch of cards arriving every two weeks — and my favorite card among them was this cuscus:
I have no idea how the cuscus sounds, nor would most questioners recognize such sounds if I could produce them, so the meow tactic is inapplicable here. Luckily, recent science offers insight into the feasibility of this tactic if one’s choice is an elephant or a gibbon. How do these creatures vocalize and is it something a human — at least in principle — could mimic?
Let’s begin with elephants. As it happens, my own animal preference began to shift from Phalanger maculatus to Elephas Maximus in my adult life, after I was blessed by this lady in India in 2011. Her name is Lakshmi:
After meeting Lakshmi, I couldn’t articulate my reasons for wanting to be an elephant aside from saying I admired her majestic presence. But when I learned that elephants can communicate over several miles through infrasounds — low frequency vibrations that actually travel through the ground — my argument was complete. It’s called seismic communication and I can’t imagine any animal ability I’d rather have.
So how do elephants produce these infrasounds? Until recently no one knew whether the process was closer to feline purring or human speech. (Be warned: I’m not a biologist or acoustician; what follows is my summary of dozens of popular articles on the topic.) Cats purr through rhythmic twitching of their vocal folds. This is called active muscular contraction (AMC) and it results from a constant neural signal to the larynx. AMC allows cats to produce a low frequency with a very tiny larynx, and they’re are able to do it while inhaling and exhaling.
People speak and sing in a different way, by exhaling air across the larynx, which causes the vocal folds to vibrate — don’t try it on an inhale! Our system is called the myoelastic-aeorodynamic method (MEAD) and it is driven by breath as opposed to the laryngeal musculature. Turns out elephants rumble using this same breath-based mechanism, and if you had sufficiently long vocal cords (theirs are 8 times the length of ours) you might be able to say something to them through the earth.
Is there any hope for a human to actually dip into the elephantine range? Apparently, U.S. singer Tim Storms can produce sounds as low as .189 Hz. And if you’re not Tim Storms? Since these infrasounds are inaudible to humans (Mr. Storms included) you could always bluff:
“Let me ask again, why do you want to be an elephant?”
“You didn’t hear me? I just explained it.“
As for gibbons, it was already understood that they don’t purr with AMC, they sing with MEAD. The recent scientific question was whether their singing employs the source-filter distinction. When a human sings, the larynx or source vibrates at fundamental frequency and also produces a range of harmonics above it (think of these as components of a complex sound). The upper vocal tract, including the tongue, lips, and teeth, serves as a filter that determines which harmonics are projected, and in turn whether the listener hears an a or an e and what nuances it has. Trained singers can get a louder sound by shaping the filter so that its resonant frequency is aligned with the fundamental frequency from the source. This process of resonance tuning requires a level of control over the upper vocal tract that was not known to exist in primates. When an experiment with helium confirmed that gibbons also have this control, the popular science headlines read: GIBBONS SING LIKE OPERATIC SOPRANOS!
I like to imagine a bunch of gibbons at a party and one brings up the if-you-could-be-any-animal question:
“So, why do you want to be a human?”
“Well, can’t you see me… on stage… as Gilda in Rigoletto?”
I wonder how this gibbon duet would go over at the Metropolitan Opera: