Borneo Wildlife, Orang Utan

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© david meyer

The Orang Utan

The orangutans are two species of great apes known for their intelligence, long arms and reddish-brown hair. Native to Indonesia and Malaysia, they are currently found only in rainforests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, though fossils have been found in Java, Vietnam and China.

They are the only surviving species in the genus Pongo and the subfamily Ponginae (which also includes the extinct genera Gigantopithecus and Sivapithecus). Their name derives from the Malay and Indonesian phrase orang hutan, meaning “person of the forest”. 

Etymology

The word orangutan (also written orang-utan, orang utan and orangutang) is derived from the Malay and Indonesian words orang meaning “person” and hutan meaning “forest”, thus “person of the forest”. Orang Hutan is the common term in these two national languages, although local peoples may also refer to them by local languages. Maias and mawas are also used in Malay, but it is unclear if those words refer only to orangutans, or to all apes in general. The word was first attested in English in 1691 in the form orang-outang, and variants with -ng instead of -n as in the Malay original are found in many languages. This spelling (and pronunciation) has remained in use in English up to the present, but has come to be regarded as incorrect by some. 

The name of the genus, Pongo, comes from a 16th century account by Andrew Battell, an English sailor held prisoner by the Portuguese in Angola, which describes two anthropoid “monsters” named Pongo and Engeco. It is now believed that he was describing gorillas, but in the late 18th century it was believed that all great apes were orangutans; hence Lacépède’s use of Pongo for the genus. 

Ecology and appearance

Orangutans are the most arboreal of the great apes, spending nearly all of their time in the trees. Every night they fashion nests, in which they sleep, from branches and foliage. They are more solitary than the other apes, with males and females generally coming together only to mate. Mothers stay with their babies until the offspring reach an age of six or seven years. There is significant sexual dimorphism between females and males: females can grow to around 4 ft 2 in or 127 centimetres and weigh around 100 lbs or 45 kg, while fully mature males can reach 5 ft 9 in or 175 centimetres in height and weigh over 260 lbs or 118 kg. Fully mature males can be distinguished by their prominent cheek flanges and longer hair.

Behaviour and language 

Orangutans at Singapore ZooLike the other great apes, orangutans are remarkably intelligent. Although tool use among chimpanzees was documented by Jane Goodall in the 1960s, it was not until the mid-1990s that one population of orangutans was found to use feeding tools regularly. A 2003 paper in the journal Science described the evidence for distinct orangutan cultures. According to recent research by Harvard University psychologist, James Lee, orangutans are the world’s most intelligent animal other than humans, with higher learning and problem solving ability than chimpanzees, which were previously considered to have greater abilities. A study of orangutans by Carel van Schaik, a Dutch primatologist at Duke University, found them capable of tasks well beyond chimpanzees’ abilities – such as using leaves to make rain hats and leakproof roofs over their sleeping nests. He also found that, in some food-rich areas, the creatures had developed a complex culture in which adults would teach youngsters how to make tools and find food.

A two year study of orangutan symbolic capability was conducted from 1973-1975 by Gary L. Shapiro with Aazk, a juvenile female orangutan at the Fresno City Zoo (now Chaffee Zoo) in Fresno, California. The study employed the techniques of David Premack who used plastic tokens to teach the chimpanzee, Sarah, linguistic skills. Shapiro continued to examine the linguistic and learning abilities of ex-captive orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, in Indonesian Borneo, between 1978 and 1980. During that time, Shapiro instructed ex-captive orangutans in the acquisition and use of signs following the techniques of R. Allen and Beatrix Gardner who taught the chimpanzee, Washoe, in the late-1960s. In the only signing study ever conducted in a great ape’s natural environment, Shapiro home-reared Princess, a juvenile female who learned nearly 40 signs (according to the criteria of sign acquisition used by Francine Patterson with Koko, the gorilla) and trained Rinnie, a free-ranging adult female orangutan who learned nearly 30 signs over a two year period. For his dissertation study, Shapiro examined the factors influencing sign learning by four juvenile orangutans over a 15-month period. The first orangutan language study program, directed by Dr. Francine Neago, was listed by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1988. The Orangutan language project at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., uses a computer system originally developed at UCLA by Neago in conjunction with IBM.  Orangutan “laughing”Zoo Atlanta has a touch screen computer where their two Sumatran Orangutans play games. Scientists hope that the data they collect from this will help researchers learn about socializing patterns, such as whether they mimic others or learn behavior from trial and error, and hope the data can point to new conservation strategies.

Contact 

david@borneoheaven.com

www.borneoheaven.com

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