Salmi Gorilla

Roberta Salmi in the forests of the Mondika Research Center Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in 2010 (Courtesy UGA Media Relations)

University of Georgia assistant professor Roberta Salmi is a veteran primatology researcher who saw a change of scenery for her work this summer. Instead of appearing in scientific articles, Salmi’s most recent endeavors made it to the big screen.


Premiering in theatres across the nation On July 14, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is the third installment in a series of prequels to the culturally iconic 1968 film “Planet of the Apes.” The film currently boasts at a box office revenue of over $224 million, as well as a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93 percent.


Salmi, an assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences’ anthropology department, first became involved with the series in 2014. Salmi was contacted by Douglas Murray, the supervising sound designer for the second installment “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Though the film was nearing completion, Murray reached out to Salmi in relation to her research in gorilla vocalizations, which he discovered through an article on Salmi’s work in Wired Magazine.


“The article was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, for which I spent 18 months in the forest of the Northern Republic of Congo collecting over 2,000 recordings of gorillas’ vocalizations,” Salmi said in a UGA Today press release. “Since the gorillas I followed every day in the Republic of Congo were fully habituated to humans, I was able to record all kinds of calls, which allowed me to describe their entire vocal repertoire and contextual use.”


Murray, looking to insure the faithful portrayal of gorilla vocalizations, reached an agreement with Salmi wherein she provided a file of 40 different gorilla calls with proper contextualization of each call and its meaning in the social interactions of gorillas.


“Most of their calls are exchanged during non-aggressive contexts, and comprise soft grunts and grumbles; they laugh when playing, they hum when feeding, infants whine and cry, and they call each other when separated,” Salmi said in the press release.


Following the success of  “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in 2014, Murray contacted Salmi once again in October of 2016 to receive authorization for further use of the previously provided calls. In addition to providing new calls, Salmi provided professional consultation on gorilla behavior.


“They wanted help on gorilla behavior, vocal production, individual distinctiveness, effects of age on sounds, postural position during vocalizations,” Salmi said in the press release. “The new movie has three main gorilla characters, and I shared with them 40 new calls. I also gave them some comments on the sounds made by the actors so that they better resemble gorilla vocalizations.”


Salmi currently serves as Director of the Primate Behavioral Ecology Lab, with research interests in primate behavior, ecology and conservation, particularly focused on western lowlands gorillas. Salmi continues her work with gorillas now in captive environments at the Atlanta Zoo.

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