Tag Archives: orangutan

Orangutans instinctively make and use basic stone tools

Loui (the juvenile male orangutan) using the core as an active element to vertically strike on the concrete floor of the testing room during the Flake Trading condition of Experiment 2. Image credits:

Orangutans are a crafty bunch. They seem to be able to use a bunch of tools in the wild and even make complex choices about these tools. So a team of researchers led by Alba Motes-Rodrigo at the University of Tübingen in Germany wanted to test their stone tool-making ability. The researchers tested out their hypothesis on two orangutans at Kristiansand Zoo in Norway.

“We wanted to investigate what stone-related behaviors might have served as stepping stones for the development of lithic technologies in our lineage. Extant apes (and monkeys) can be used as living models to build hypotheses in this regard,” Motes-Rodrigo tells ZME Science.

“We decided to test orangutans because despite being proficient tool users and using a variety of raw materials as tools, they do not use stone tools in the wild. This absence of stone tool use behaviors in the wild orangutan repertoire supports the naivety of our study subjects before the start of the experiments. This naivety allowed us to investigate the learning process of stone-related skills from the beginning, excluding previous knowledge of the tasks.”

Each orangutan was provided with a concrete hammer, a specially prepared blunt stone core, and two baited puzzle boxes. In order to get through the boxes, the orangutans had to cut through a rope or a silicon skin — but if they could do it, they got a treat.

Initially, both orangutans started hitting the hammer against the walls and floor of their enclosure. They didn’t strike the stone core directly. In the second experiment, they were also given a human-made sharp flint flake, which one orangutan used to cut the silicon skin, solving the puzzle.

It’s the first time cutting behavior has been observed in untrained, unenculturated orangutans. In a subsequent experiment, researchers demonstrated how to strike the core to create a flint to three female orangutans at another zoo (Twycross Zoo) in the UK. After being taught, one female went on to use the hammer to hit the core as demonstrated.

This suggests that two major prerequisites for creating stone tools (striking with stone hammers and recognizing that sharp edges can cut) may have existed in our common lineage with orangutans 13 million years ago. However, this is merely speculation at this point and we need more evidence before we can truly say whether this was the case or not.

“Our results have added a new piece to the puzzle of the technological origins of our species showing that an ape species that does not use stone tools in the wild and that diverged from our lineage 13 million years ago, spontaneously engages in stone-related behaviours crucial for stone tool making (lithic percussion) as well as has the ability to recognise and use sharp stones as cutting tools.”

“The lithic percussive behaviours that we observed seem to be relatively common among primates, with species such as macaques, capuchins and chimpanzees also expressing them in the wild and in some studies in captivity. The use of a sharp stone as a cutting tool had never been reported before in an untrained ape, but given that we only have one observation of this behaviour it would be premature to draw strong conclusions about its evolutionary history.”

Sharp-edged bits detached by the orangutan in the second experiment. Image credits: Motes-Rodrigo et al (2022).

The orangutans’ tool-making is remarkable, but they haven’t entered the Stone Age just yet, Motes-Rodrigo tells ZME Science. Essentially, their tools are not complex enough, and we haven’t seen them do this in a natural environment. They could be capable of doing it, but we haven’t observed them doing it. So, for the moment we can’t place them in the Stone Age just yet.

“Even the most primitive human stone tools were far more advanced than what we have seen in orangutans and reflect advanced spatial and cognitive skills. In addition, these behaviors have only been observed in captivity under experimental conditions. Perhaps if in future we would make similar observations in the wild, we could make such claims, but at the moment we can’t.”

Journal Reference: Motes-Rodrigo A, McPherron SP, Archer W, Hernandez-Aguilar RA, Tennie C (2022) Experimental investigation of orangutans’ lithic percussive and sharp stone tool behaviours. PLoS ONE 17(2): e0263343. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0263343

Coronavirus adds new threat to orangutans in Indonesia

Many threats such as land loss and degradation, poaching, and deforestation have turned orangutans into a critically endangered species over the years, with 80% of them living outside protected areas. Now, a new potentially deadly threat has been added to the list, coronavirus.

Credit Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

No cases of transmissions from humans to orangutans have been confirmed yet, but chances are high as they share 97% of our DNA. That has made authorities in Indonesia, home to many orangutans in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, to take measures to protect them.

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, a rehabilitation center for orangutans in Borneo, closed its doors to all visitors and asked the caretakers to take precautions against passing on any infections, such as wearing masks and protective gloves — gear that is burned after the working day is over.

“There haven’t been any confirmed cases of direct transmission, but it’s caused other issues like a shortage of masks and disinfectant supplies for our orangutan caretakers,” said foundation veterinarian Agus Irwanto in a statement, asking for donations due to markups in pricing.

For the apes, however, there hasn’t been much change in their daily jungle jaunts. Their routine has not changed; they still depart for the forest early in the morning and return in the late afternoon after a day of discovery and learning. The feeding schedule continues the same, twice a day, as well as the cleaning of their enclosures.

“Our dedicated veterinarians, surrogate mothers, and technicians are working tirelessly to ensure that the orangutans in our centres remain safe and healthy,” the foundation said in a statement. “Every one of our team members is doing their best to make sure they stay in good health and follow all safety procedures, both to protect the orangutans in their care and their own loving families waiting for them at home.”

Similar protection measures are being taken in zoos that host orangutans across the globe, such as in France, with caretakers keeping their distance from them. At the same time, last month the forest-covered African nation of Gabon said it would stop allowing tourists to see apes over fears that humans could give them the virus.

The word orangutan means ‘person of the forest’ and orangutans are perfectly adapted to their habitat. Their long arms and palm-like- feet allow them to grasp branches and travel with ease through the forest canopy. Orangutans open up the forest canopy by breaking off branches and creating gaps, allowing light to reach the forest floor.

There are three species: the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). The orangutan’s preferred habitat is a low-lying peat-swamp forest. Their distribution is influenced by fruit availability and is rarely found above 500m.

According to the Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA) in May 2017 there are an estimated 57,000 Bornean orangutans, 13,000 Sumatran orangutans, and 800 Tapanuli orangutan in the wild. By 2080, if current trends continue, it has been projected that the Bornean orangutan will lose 70-80% of its forest habitat.

Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer. Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil produced from the kernels of oil palm trees. The local orangutan population is threatened because their habitat, low-lying tropical rainforest, has been cleared and converted to oil-palm plantations. In recent years, fires have been used to clear land for the development of oil-palm plantations. Fires have been traditionally used for slash and burn to clear areas for farmland. However, when the fires coincide with an El Nino year (which results in a longer than a normal dry season) they can burn out of control.

Mining in recent years has caused irreversible damage to Indonesia’s forests. Illegal open cast mining for gold and zircon in protected areas has turned the lush primary rainforest into a barren and lifeless desert. Mercury, used in the mining process, contaminates the river systems, killing fish and other wildlife.

Giant extinct primate is directly related to orangutans

Gigantopithecus blacki mandible. Credit: Prof. Wei Wang.

An international team of researchers just demonstrated the massive potential of ancient protein sequencing by retrieving genetic information from a 1.9-million-year-old extinct primate. The researchers concluded that the 3-meter-tall primate is directly related to the orangutan. This kind of genetic reconstruction is unprecedented, which means this method might someday allow scientists to reconstruct the evolutionary relationship between our own species and extinct relatives farther back in time than ever before.

Meet King Kong

‘By sequencing proteins retrieved from dental enamel about two million years old, we showed it is possible to confidently reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of animal species that went extinct too far away in time for their DNA to survive till now. In this study, we can even conclude that the lineages of orangutan and Gigantopithecus split up about 12 million years ago’, says Enrico Cappellini.

The fossils of the giant primate, known as Gigantopithecus blacki, were first discovered in 1935 in a traditional medicine shop in Hong Kong, where they were sold as “dragon teeth.”

To this day, we only know of a few lower jaws and some teeth, which has led to many speculations regarding the physical appearance of this ancient creature. Scientists believe that that Gigantopithecus stood almost 3 meters tall and weighed twice as much as a gorilla. Now, armed with genetic information scientists have settled the debate: it’s the direct ancestor of the orangutan and might have also looked like one.

“Previous attempts to understand which could be the living organism most similar to Gigantopithecus could only be based on the comparison of the shape of the fossils with skeletal reference material from living great apes. Ancient DNA analysis was not an option, because Gigantopithecus went extinct approximately 300.000 years ago, and in the geographic area Gigantopithecus occupied no DNA older than approximately 10.000 years has been retrieved so far. Accordingly, we decided to sequence dental enamel proteins to reconstruct its evolutionary relation with living great apes, and we found that orangutan is Gigantopithecus‘ closest living relative’, says Enrico Cappellini, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Science and lead author of the new study published in Nature.

Gigantopithecus blacki mandible top view. Credit: Wei Wang.

For context, the oldest genetic information retrieved from a human is no older than 400,000 years and, up until now, it has only been possible to read DNA data from up to 10,000-year-old fossils in warm, humid areas — the kind of environment where the Gigantopithecus blacki fossils were retrieved. By comparison, retrieving genetic information from nearly 2 million years ago is light-years away, which is why this new research is so exciting. Many ancient remains belonging to our supposed ancestors are mainly found in subtropical areas, for instance. Imagine if the same could be done for other fossils, allowing scientists to piece together the complex evolutionary tree to which Homo sapiens belongs.


Bonobo mothers help their sons get dates — it makes them 3x as likely to become fathers

If you’re tired of your parents asking you when you’re getting married, tell them they could be more like bonobos and help you out.


“You’re not going out groomed like that, young man!”
Image via Pixabay.

Many social animals share child-rearing duties among members of the group, but new research from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, found that one species takes this to the extreme: the bonobos. Mother bonobos, the team reports, take an active role in ensuring their sons father children. Sons who are aided by their mothers have three times the chance of becoming fathers compared to those who aren’t.

‘I gave your number to a cute girl’

“This is the first time that we can show the impact of the mother’s presence on a very important male fitness trait, which is their fertility,” says Martin Surbeck, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

“We were surprised to see that the mothers have such a strong, direct influence on the number of grandchildren they get.”

Surbeck and his team worked with populations of wild bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as groups of wild chimpanzees in the Ivory Coast (Tanzania) and Uganda. Both chimpanzee and bonobo mothers would take the role of advocating for their sons in male-on-male conflicts, the team reports — but bonobo mothers also seem to aid their sons in romance.

Some of the behaviors they’ll use to this end include protecting their sons’ mating attempts from other males and intervening in other male’s mating attempts. Bonobo mothers will also leverage their rank in the group (bonobos have matriarchal societies) to give their sons access to popular spots within social groups in the community and help them achieve higher status — which increases their mating prospects. Chimp mothers also engage in such interactions, albeit rarely, the team notes. However, male chimpanzees hold a dominant position over females, socially, making their efforts much less effective than those of bonobo females.

Bonobo mothers don’t seem to extend the same kind of help to their daughters — either socially or romantically.

“In bonobo social systems, the daughters disperse from the native community and the sons stay,” Surbeck says.

“And for the few daughters that stay in the community, which we don’t have many examples of, we don’t see them receiving much help from their mothers.”

In the future, the team wants to understand why bonobo females engage in such behavior. Their working theory so far is that by helping their sons father children, they’re indirectly supporting the continuation of their own genes. This will require a long-term, collaborative effort, he says, to gather data on post-reproductive lifespans of females in chimp and bonobo communities.

“These [bonobo] females have found a way to increase their reproductive success without having more offspring themselves,” Surbeck says.

The team notes that a similar mechanism may have taken place in humans (the ‘grandmother hypothesis‘), listing the long stretch of the post-reproductive human female lifespan as well as the early-age at which human women can no longer bear children (menopause) as evidence in support of this.

The paper “Males with a mother living in their group have higher paternity success in bonobos but not chimpanzees” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Nut hammer.

Orangutans don’t use tools instinctively — they actually think about what they’re doing

Sadly, we may never get to know the full extent of their abilities.

Nut hammer.

Image credits Benjamin Balazs.

It’s always impressive to see animals using tools. But one type of tool use — called ‘flexible’ — is by far the one that impresses us most. Flexible tool use is indicative of higher mental processes, such as the ability to plan certain actions and consider their outcomes. An international research effort looked into tool related decision-making in orangutans and reports that the apes put thought into how they implement tools rather than relying on instinct.

When you put your mind to it

“Our study shows that orangutans can simultaneously consider multi-dimensional task components in order to maximize their gains and it is very likely that we haven´t even reached the full extent of their information processing capabilities,” said co-author Josep Call from the University of St Andrews.

Orangutans are one of our closest relatives, sharing 97% of our DNA. They’re highly intelligent, exhibiting long-term memory, routine use of complex tools in the wild, and sophisticated nest-building behaviors.

This intelligence helps them navigate their natural environments with gusto. Orangutans have to juggle multiple factors simultaneously to make ends meet, such as remembering the best time to find ripe fruits, the distance to and availability of food resources at various times of the year, and the availability of tools to maximize these resources.

To get a better idea of how the apes handle tool use and how many different factors they can consider at a time in order to maximize reward, researchers from the University of Vienna, the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and the University of St Andrews put orangutans at the Wolfgang Koehler Primate Research Center in Leipzig to the test.

The team used two types of food: banana pellets, which are the orangutans’ favorite snack, and apple pieces — which they like, but will disregard in favor of the pellets. The food was placed in two different apparatuses: one requiring a probing stick to operate, while the other required dropping a ball inside to reach the snack. During the trial, orangutans were pitted against either one or both of these devices and given a choice between two items — usually a tool and a food item. Once one item was picked, the other was immediately removed from the trial area.

Testing devices.

The ball-apparatus (left) and stick apparatus (right) used in the study.
Image credits Isabelle Laumer et al., (2019), PLOS ONE.

Orangutans showed great flexibility in adapting to different scenarios, says lead researcher Isabelle Laumer. If one food item was out of immediate reach, and the animals had to pick between the appropriate tool or a readily-available banana pellet, they always chose the pellet, she explains.

“However, when the orangutans could choose between the apple-piece and a tool they chose the tool but only if it worked for the available apparatus: For example when the stick and the likeable food was available but the apes faced the ball-apparatus baited with the favourite banana-pellet, they chose the apple-piece over the non-functional tool. When the stick-apparatus with the banana-pellet inside was available they chose the stick-tool over the immediate apple-piece”, she adds.

The final task required the orangutans to deal with two of the apparatuses, one baited with a banana pellet and the other with an apple piece. The apes were supplied with the appropriate tools to deal with both of the devices. In this case, the orangutans “were still able to make profitable choices” by picking the tool appropriate for the pellet-laden device, the team reports.

It may not seem like very much to us humans with our fancy tools, but it is quite a remarkable find. Most tool-usage we see in the wild is inflexible. A sea otter, for example, will use stones to break up shells, and an archerfish will shoot jets of water to knock insects into a pond where they can reach them. But the otter won’t use a tool to enable it to reach food more easily, and the archerfish won’t use its jets of water to defend itself or for any other task. These animals don’t ‘understand’ their tools as we do — the behavior is instinctually hard-wired and won’t be adapted for a different purpose. It’s done automatically.

What the team found in this study is that orangutans will overcome immediate impulses — grabbing the available food — if they can get a better reward in the future, even if this means using novel tools in novel ways. Needless to say, this betrays a certain cognitive sophistication on their part. The team ties their results to previous findings in Goffin cockatoos, which have shown similar (but more limited) abilities.

“The birds were confronted with the choice between a tool to retrieve an out-of-reach food item and an immediate reward. We found that they, similar to the apes, were highly sensible to the quality of the immediate relative to the out-of-reach reward at the same time as to whether the available tool would actually work with the task at hand”, explains Alice Auersperg, the head of the Goffin Lab in Austria and paper co-author.

“Again, this suggests that similar cognitive abilities can evolve independently in distantly related species. Nevertheless, the cockatoos did reach their limit at the very last task in which both apparatuses baited with both possible food qualities and both tools were available at the same time.”

Still, we may never get the full picture on orangutans’ capabilities. A 2007 survey by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found that orangutans will become extinct in the wild within two decades if the current rate of deforestation is maintained.

“Habitat loss due to extensive palm-oil production is the major threat,” Laumer explains.

“Unfortunately palm oil is still the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. As long as there is a demand for palm oil and we keep buying products that contain palm oil, more and more of the rain-forest will be destroyed. Each of us can positively impact the survival of these extraordinary animals by making purchase decisions that may appear small, but that can collectively make a huge impact on our planet.”

Tool use in animals is a rare trait, one which we consider a tell-tale sign of intelligence. This is doubly true for intelligent tool use, as the name suggests, since it requires the flexible integration of multiple sources of information and environmental conditions.

Wouldn’t it be a shame to extinguish one of its prime examples for a little cooking oil?

The paper “Orangutans (Pongo abelii) make flexible decisions relative to reward quality and tool functionality in a multi-dimensional tool-use task” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Orangutan numbers continue to decline — despite optimistic government report

A recent report presented by the Indonesian government is simply not true, according to a recent analysis. The report is at odds with several scientific studies, and there is little reason for optimism, the new research, ominously titled “Orangutan populations are certainly not increasing in the wild”, concludes.

There are three species of orangutans, all native to Indonesia and Malaysia, particularly to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Orangutans are among the most intelligent animals in the world, being able to use remarkably sophisticated tools, and build elaborate sleeping nests each night from branches and foliage. But they are also critically endangered.

A recent study found that Borneo has lost almost 150,000 orangutans in the past two decades, largely due to agriculture-driven deforestation and poaching. The findings have been echoed by several other studies, but a recent governmental report from Indonesia claimed otherwise: orangutan numbers were rising, it said. Now, a team of researchers strongly refutes the report’s findings.

“All three species of orangutan are Critically Endangered and on a steep decline. Their numbers are not increasing as indicated by the Indonesian government report,” says Erik Meijaard (@emeijaard) of Borneo Futures and the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

The governmental report focused on only nine monitoring sites and found that at one site, the population has doubled — something which is “biologically impossible,” Meijaard and colleagues say.

Furthermore, the sites chosen in the report are used for orangutan introduction and relocation, so naturally they would increase in population, because orangutans were brought from somewhere else — but this isn’t a net increase, only an offset.

Lastly, even so, the monitored sites account for only 5% of the total orangutan population, include only protected lands, and ignore the Tapanuli orangutan altogether. As a result, researchers say, it is “scientifically unjustified to extrapolate population trends from these sampling sites to the total range of all three species.”

Rainforest cover in 1973 (left) versus 2016 (right). Image credits: CIFOR.

Meijaard says that it’s not entirely clear what this report will mean, but it’s important that the Indonesian government realizes that the orangutan numbers aren’t increasing — they’re falling. This needs to be considered for future conservation strategies.

“If the government thinks that orangutan populations are increasing, it calls for completely different strategies compared to those required for dealing with rapidly decreasing populations,” Meijaard says. “It is important that the government realizes that populations remain in decline. Therefore, a new approach to orangutan conservation is needed.”

Lastly, Meijaard and colleagues call on the government, local corporations, and all involved stakeholders, to determine which strategies have been effectively implemented, and what strategies have been ineffective. If we want to truly see orangutan numbers rising, we need better collaboration and selection of strategies proven to reduce threats to remaining orangutans.

Journal Reference: Current Biology, Meijaard et al.: “Orangutan populations are certainly not increasing in the wild” https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)31277-6

Borneo has lost nearly 150,000 orangutans since 1999

The world’s largest orangutan species is quickly being vanquished by deforestation and hunting, a new study reports.

The Bornean orangutan is only found in Borneo, the third-largest island in the world. Split between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, it’s a biodiversity hotspot, with a rainforest estimated to be around 140 million years old. There are about 15,000 species of flowering plants and 3,000 species of trees, as well as 420 species of resident birds and 221 species of terrestrial mammals. Among them is the critically endangered orangutan.

The orangutan is highly intelligent, displaying tool use and distinct cultural patterns in the wild. In recent decades, however, they’ve been threatened more and more by deforestation, mainly for the production of palm oil. But the new study suggests that it’s not just palm oil — hunting is also threatening these orangutans.

“The decline in population density was most severe in areas that were deforested or transformed for industrial agriculture, as orangutans struggle to live outside forest areas,” says Maria Voigt of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. “Worryingly, however, the largest number of orangutans were lost from areas that remained forested during the study period. This implies a large role of killing.” Orangutans are often hunted and sold as bushmeat.

Rainforest cover in 1973 (left) versus 2016 (right). Image credits: CIFOR.

Quantifying data on orangutans is not easy. In order to assess the population decline, Voigt and colleagues compiled years of field surveys, overlaying them on maps of estimated land-cover change over the same period. The monitoring of these changes was made possible by advancements in remote sensing technology.

It was a massive effort which involved researchers from 38 international institutions. In addition to the study, the data was also added to an interactive map which you can check out here.

“Our new study estimates that 76%, or 55.8 million hectares, of Borneo was old-growth rainforest in 1973. Old-growth forest ecosystems are intact and include many old (>500 years) closed-canopy evergreen trees.” the researchers write.

Most of the orangutan population has been destroyed. In total, researchers estimate that 148,500 Bornean orangutans have been lost in only 16 years, with only 70,000 to 100,000 animals left in the wild. To make matters even worse, 26 out of the 64 remaining populations have less than 100 individuals — the bare minimum for a population to be considered viable.

Yet not all is lost. Serge Wich from Liverpool John Moores University says that orangutans are much more resilient than anticipated. If we can leave them be, they can make a recovery.

“Orangutans are flexible and can survive to some extent in a mosaic of forests, plantations, and logged forest, but only when they are not killed,” Wich says. “So, in addition to protection of forests, we need to focus on addressing the underlying causes of orangutan killing. The latter requires public awareness and education, more effective law enforcement, and also more studies as to why people kill orangutans in the first place.”

The findings have been published in Current Biology.

Orangutan from Batang Toru, which scientists now say belongs to a new species. Credit: Tim Laman.

Scientists discover third Orangutan species. It’s already threatened with extinction

Researchers have established that an isolated population of orangutans found in Batang Toru, North Sumatra, is actually a distinct third species.

Orangutan from Batang Toru, which scientists now say belongs to a new species. Credit: Tim Laman.

Orangutan from Batang Toru, which scientists now say belongs to a new species. Credit: Tim Laman.

One big family

Biologists had known about the unique orangutan population, which is nestled within the Tapanuli district in North Sumatra, since 1997. The first hints suggesting the orangutans belonged to a distinct new species surfaced in 2013, when scientists examined the skull of an orangutan male killed in the area. Upon closer inspection, the primate’s skull exhibited skull and teeth features dissimilar from other orangutan species. Ultimately, scientists at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, determined that they were dealing with a new orangutan species, which they dubbed Pongo tapanuliensis. 

“When we realized that the Tapanuli orangutans were morphologically different from all other orangutans, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place,” adds Michael Krützen, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Genomics at the University of Zurich.

“We identified three very old evolutionary lineages among all orangutans, despite only having two species currently described,” added Maja Mattle-Greminger, a postdoctoral researcher at UZH.

Pongo tapanuliensis skull. Credit: Nater et al.

Pongo tapanuliensis skull. Credit: Nater et al.

The two other known orangutan species are Pongo abelii, which can be found on the island of Sumatra, and Pongo pygmeaeus, endemic to Borneo. With the addition of the new orangutan species, P. tapanuliensis, there are now seven living species of great apes aside from humans, the other being eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

Credit: Maxime Aliaga.

Credit: Maxime Aliaga.

To verify the morphological and genetic examination, the team employed a complex computer model which revealed that the Tapanuli population must have been isolated from other Sumatran populations of orangutans for least 10,000 to 20,000 years. In fact, the oldest evolutionary line in the genus Pongo can be traced back to Tapanuli orangutans, according to the researchers who described the species in the journal Current BiologyIt’s very likely Tapanuli orangutans are the direct descendants of the initial orangutans that had migrated from mainland Asia, and we just barely found them now.

It’s quite exciting to hear about the discovery of a new great ape species in the 21st century. Alas, such good news doesn’t last long. Orangutan populations are threatened by deforestation for agricultural use, and P. tapanuliensis is no exception. Conservation efforts in Sumatra must now take into account that there is a new species which requires protection. Forests in the Batan Toru ecosystem are currently being logged to make way for palm oil plantations, and there’s even a plan to raise a new hydroelectric dam which could also impact the habitat of Tapanuli orangutans.

“Great apes are among the best-studied species in the world,” said Erik Meijaard of the Australian National University in a press release. “If after 200 years of serious biological research we can still find new species in this group, what does it tell us about all the other stuff that we are overlooking: hidden species, unknown ecological relationships, critical thresholds we shouldn’t cross? Humans are conducting a vast global experiment, but we have near-zero understanding of what impacts this really has, and how it could ultimately undermine our own survival.”

By the latest estimate, there should be no more than 800 individuals belonging to the new orangutan species. That makes the Tapanuli population extremely vulnerable and the great ape species at the greatest risk of extinction.

 “If steps are not taken quickly to reduce current and future threats and to conserve every last remaining bit of forest, a great ape species may become extinct within a few decades,” warns Matt Nowak, who supervises research into the Tapanuli orangutans at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

“If even 8 out of 800 animals per annum were killed or otherwise removed from the population, the species might be doomed,” the scientists caution.

Scientific reference: Current Biology, Nater et al.: “Morphometric, Behavioral, and Genomic Evidence for a New Orangutan Species” http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)31245-9 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.09.047

Tinder-like app for orangutans lets females in zoos chose who they mate with

A Dutch zoo is exploring the merits of Tinder-like software in boosting their orangutans’ sex lives, by allowing them more leeway in choosing a mate.

Gotta look good for that profile picture.
Image credits Tambako The Jaguar / Flickr.

As part of a four-year long experiment dubbed “Tinder for orangutans,” 11-year-old female Samboja of the Apenheul primate park in Apeldoorn, Holland, will be the first of her species to swipe, swipe, match. Thomas Bionda, a behavioural biologist at the zoo, will delight the orangutan with pictures of males on a touchscreen to learn more about the species’ mating choices.

Monkeying around

Well you might not know this was a problem up to now, but we kinda need orangutans to get down to business. Along with chimps, orangutans are our closest living relative — and of course, we cut down their habitat and even hunted them so much they’re now endangered.

Part of the effort to preserve this species comes from zoos, where orangutans are encouraged to mate. Available males and females are shipped around all over the world to do just that, but it doesn’t always go according to plan. That’s why Bionda and the zoo have been trying to figure out how females decide which suitors are worthy, by allowing them to take their pick on a touchscreen tablet and examining the results for patterns. Since flying in males can be a long and costly procedure — they could come from as far away as Singapore — the zoo hopes this research will limit stale encounters.

“Things don’t always go well when a male and a female first meet,” Bionda said.

“Often, animals have to be taken back to the zoo they came from without mating.”

I know your pain, male orangutans.

The team’s main problem was developing a device that wouldn’t break under the Samboja’s rough handling. Their first tablet was reinforced with steel and made it past the two week mark. Then Samboja’s mother Sandy — also known as Demolition Woman — got her hands on the device and destroyed it. The scientists are now waiting for a strong-enough screen, after which they will test if looks alone are enough to guarantee a successful encounter in the species.

“This is completely digital, of course,” he said. “Usually, smell plays an important role too. But with the orangutans, it will be what you see is what you get.”

Bionda however isn’t only interested in hooking up orangutans — his research plays into broader work looking at the role emotions play in animal relationships.

“Emotion is of huge evolutionary importance. If you don’t interpret an emotion correctly in the wild, it can be the end of you.”

Orangutans can tell if a drink tastes good or bad just by looking at it — once thought a ‘human thing’

The results of a new study suggest that affective forecasting, the ability to navigate new situations based on previous experience, is not limited to humans, as previously believed.

When you make a decision, your brain looks at every piece of experience it has at its disposal, selects those that are relevant to the situation, and then tries to determine the outcome of your choices based on them to determine the best course of action.

Up to now, the consensus was that only humans have this ability while non-human animals use the age old trial-and-error method. But a new study, led by Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc of Lund University in Sweden, comes against this belief.

“Mmmm, that sweet rhubarb pie…”
Image via pexels

In the study, a 21-year old Sweedish zoo orangutan was required to mix new blends of juices from a set of 4 ingredients (cherry, lemon, rhubarb and vinegar). The animal proved to know whether it will like or dislike the taste of the drink based on how he recombined relevant memories from the past, without having tested the specific juice mix before. The team developed a non-verbal test to assess how an animal reacts to new tastes.

The orangutan, named Naong, was joined by ten people aged between 20 and 35 years old, who would serve as the human reference.

The tests took part in two steps — a transparent and a concealed situation. In each of the trials, participants were presented with three bottles containing 10 ml of an ingredient each.

“The content of one bottle was then poured into an adjacent bottle, so that two ingredients were mixed in front of the participants resulting into a novel drink,” the team writes. ”

The empty bottle was removed from the table and the participants had to choose between 10 ml of a familiar ingredient and 20 ml of a novel mix.”

The only difference was that while in the transparent condition the bottles and their ingredients would remain fully visible, in the concealed trial two were only shown to participants for 8-10 seconds prior to mixing. The third was left visible until poured into one of the concealed bottles, then the bottle was removed.

Prior to the experiment, Naong went through a series of trial experiments until he understood how the liquids interact when mixing (how their volumes sum up, taste changes, etc,) and additional training with the four ingredients to be used to determine his preference for them.The trial experiments were performed with four different flavors.

The team found that both the human subjects and Naong consistently made choices based on their preferences for the ingredients. Even more, Naong’s performance in this regard was within the range of that shown by the humans. He made consistent choices when faced with novel situations, in stark contrast to the trial-and-error behavior we would expect. This means that Naong was just as capable of predicting whether the final mix would be tasty or not as a human.

At the end of the experiment, the researchers found that Naong’s choices throughout the experiment matched his preferences for the mixes determined prior to the experiment. This indicates that his choices were indeed guided by predictions concerning the taste of the never-before-experienced mixes.

“The orangutan, just like humans, seems to have been able to make hedonic predictions concerning never-before experienced events,” says Sauciuc.

She adds that this relationship was confirmed when the data obtained in the study were incorporated into statistical models.

The full paper, titled “Affective forecasting in an orangutan: predicting the hedonic outcome of novel juice mixes” has been published online in the journal Animal Cognition.


Borneo orangutan and two shark species hit extinction ‘red list’

It was a sad announcement, as conservationists revealed that three emblematic creatures just entered the extinction red list: the Bornean orangutan, the world’s biggest fish – the whale shark – and a hammerhead shark species.

Photo by Eric Kilby.

“It is alarming to see such emblematic species slide towards extinction,” Jane Smart, head of IUCN’s Global Species Programme, said in a statement.

It’s highly worrying to think that future generations could only see these creatures in zoos and movies, but that’s a clear possibility by now. The Bornean orangutan, which along with its cousin the Sumatran orangutan are Asia’s only great apes, has moved from being classified as “Endangered” to “Critically Endangered” – which means it’s basically just one step away from extinction. To make things even worse, this situation is hardly reversible.

“As orangutans are hunted and pushed out of their habitats, losses to this slow-breeding species are enormous and will be extremely difficult to reverse,” Erik Meijaard, an IUCN assessor of the species said in the statement.

The main problem is habitat loss. As humans continue to expand and create more plantations for palm oil and rubber, they are destroying more and more of the rainforest. Also, for the past four decades, 2,000 to 3,000 of the orangutans have been killed every year by hunters or locals who see them as pests.

IUCN also warned that the slow-moving whale shark, which can measure up to 12.65 metres (41.5 feet) is suffering a similar fate. The shark is being killed because its fins are considered a delicacy in some parts of Asia. It is also accidentally caught by fishing nets aiming for tuna.

An emblematic hammer shark is also threatened. The small brownish grey shark, which has an exceptionally large “hammer” is especially prone to getting trapped in fishing nets due to its shape. It’s difficult to estimate how many of these sharks still survive, but their numbers are definitely dropping.

Ancient shoulders point to our ape past

A new study shows that evolution’s burden is distinctly visible on our shoulders – literally. Our shoulders are surprisingly similar to those of orangutans, as opposed to those of our closest relatives, chimps. This allowed us to be better throwers but also made us more prone to injuries.

A hypothesized model of shoulder shape evolution from African ape-like (top left) to modern human (bottom right) including predicted ancestral forms (grey) and hominin fossils: Australopithecus afarensis (DIK 1-1 developmental simulation, top right), Australopithecus sediba (MH2, middle left), Homo ergaster (KNM WT15000, middle right), Homo neanderthalensis (Kebara 2, bottom middle). Credits: Nathan Young.

Humans started splitting from other species in the Pan genus some 6-7 million years ago. The genus Pan is part of the subfamily Homininae, to which humans also belong. In many ways, we are today similar to chimps. Classic research by Mary-Claire King in 1973 found 99% identical DNA between human beings and chimpanzees, although today that number is believed to be closer to 94%; in genetic terms, we are almost identical to chimps, and many similarities are easy to see. However, when it comes to shoulders, we’re more like our distant cousins the orangutans: less suited for climbing and better at handling tools and throwing things.

“Humans are unique in many ways. We have features that clearly link us with African apes, but we also have features that appear more primitive, leading to uncertainty about what our common ancestor looked like,” said Nathan Young, PhD, assistant professor at UC San Francisco School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “Our study suggests that the simplest explanation, that the ancestor looked a lot like a chimp or gorilla, is the right one, at least in the shoulder.”

Human shoulder blades are built for labor and not climbing, but 3D scans of shoulder blades from humans, early-human ancestors, apes, and monkeys alike seem to indicate that all of them are similar enough to suggest that we evolved from an ape model. According to researchers, it took quite a while for us to adapt from a tree-based life to moving on the ground and using tools, but we did adapt, and so did our shoulders (in time).

“These changes in the shoulder, which were probably initially driven by the use of tools well back into human evolution, also made us great throwers,” study author Neil T. Roach, a fellow of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, said in a statement. “Our unique throwing ability likely helped our ancestors hunt and protect themselves, turning our species into the most dominant predators on earth.”

The study started with the class “That’s odd…” statement. Researchers realized that the human shoulder is strange.

“Human shoulder blades are odd, separated from all the apes. Primitive in some ways, derived in other ways, and different from all of them,” Young said. “How did the human lineage evolve and where did the common ancestor to modern humans evolve a shoulder like ours?”

To figure this out, they studied two early human Australopithecus species, the primitive A. afarensis and younger A. sediba, as well as H. ergaster and Neandertals, to build up a sort of shoulder spectrum and see how everything fits.

“Finding fossil remains of the common ancestor would be ideal, however, when fossils are absent, employing such multifaceted techniques is the next best solution,” said Zeray Alemseged, PhD, senior curator of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences.

But even with the resources they had available, they were able to establish the relationship between the different shoulders.

The switch came with a bunch of trade-offs, both positive and negative. For starters, human shoulders are better at throwing things fast and precise, which certainly helped our ability to hunt. However, this also left us more prone to shoulder injuries, which is still visible today. Americans get approximately 2 million rotator cuff injuries each year. Actually, this research could help those suffering from this type of injuries:

“We could potentially use information about the shape of an individual’s shoulder to predict if they have a higher likelihood of injury and then recommend personalized exercise programs that would best help to prevent them,” Young said. “For a baseball pitcher, depending on your shoulder shape, you might want to emphasize some strengthening exercises over others to protect your rotator cuff.”

The ugly truth behind the ‘cute’ video of the orangutan and tiger cubs

Social media was abuzz when it came out – just look at this video of an orangutan bottle-feeding a tiger cub. Tens of millions of people tuned in to watch this “cuteness overload”… but the truth behind this is not cute at all. It’s actually quite saddening. We’ll discuss why, after the video.

The almost surreal scene came from Myrtle Beach Safari’s The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.) in South Carolina, United States. They claim to be a safe haven for wildlife (especially tigers), but in reality, the facility is little more than a touristic attraction where animals are taken to serve as props for visitors. Let’s face it – tigers are magnificent creatures, and few people would pass the chance of being around one if they knew it was completely safe. After all, most visitors spend a few hours with wild animals, give some money which they believe goes to animal conservation, and they’re actually think they’re helping – but they’re not.

Animals at T.I.G.E.R.S. are bred or bought solely for profit, with no conservation efforts and without even considering reintroduction to the wild. But don’t take it from me, take it from them:

“You can support us in our conservation efforts by participating in our T.I.G.E.R.S. preservation station photo encounter. During this encounter, you will get hands-on with a baby tiger and a young ape while they sit on your lap. Photo encounters start at $100 a person […]”

OK, Tigers are put on display in small enclosures, removed from their mother, but this is all… for conservation purposes, right? According to their website, the Rare Species Fund (a charity owned by them) “donated and personally transported 7 tigers from our Myrtle Beach, South Carolina preserve to the Samutprakarn Wildlife Preserve South of Bangkok.” It’s all fine, until you find out that the Samutprakarn Wildlife Preserve in Thailand is not really a preserve. Actually called the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, the facility is another for-profit organization, hosting what they call “freak” animals such as 6-legged crocodiles. The money they spend on “conservation” is actually spent on bringing animals into captivity.

As a matter of fact, breeding animals in captivity seems to be one of their main activities – including inbred animals such as ligers. Ligers are crossbred from lions and tigers; they are sterile, have shorter lifespans and often suffer from numerous health problems. Due to their size, the tigress mother can only deliver a liger by Ceasarian section and there are numerous reports of mothers rejecting her hybrid cubs all together. But of course, people are fascinated by them, so they have the potential to make a lot of money. All animals seem to be bred and trained for this specific purpose, and the training starts quickly after birth.

“Cubs used by exhibitors to make money from handling are typically torn from their mothers shortly after birth, a torment to both cub and mother. They are deprived of the comfort and nutrition of nursing and grooming by the mothers, subjected to unnatural levels of stress that lower their immune systems, and typically not allowed the natural amount and timing of sleep in order to satisfy customers,” 911animalabuse writes.

T.I.G.E.R.S. are very vague about what training methods they use, but they have a hefty list of USDA violations. They were cited for abandoning deer and peacocks and in total have wracked up 38 more violations between 1988 and 2014. For a fee, you can swim with Bubbles the elephant, or stand on her like on a surfboard. It’s obvious that the elephant was subjected to heavy conditioning to accept this treatment. But there’s another puzzling (and extremely worrying) question: what do they do with tigers after they’re no longer cubs?! They claim they’ve trained over 400 cats yet there are only some 60 cats currently living at Myrtle Beach Safari, so what happened to the rest of them? Well… no one really knows; from what I could there is no tiger tracking program in the US. Among the few known cases took place in 2009 when they gave two cats to a man who had lost his USDA license due to abandoning 75 of his own tigers in Palm Bay, Florida. Their final destination was to Zoological Imports 2000, an exotic dealership.

This is not how animals should be treated, and videos like that one may be cute, they come at quite a price. Think twice before encouraging such “sanctuaries”, and before sharing. This might turn out to be not so cute after all.

A wild-born orangutan has learned to communicate like a human

A female orangutan born in the wild has learned to use her tongue to whistle and produce vowel sounds just like a human – suggesting that all giant apes are able to do so. Although orangutans are known to create diverse vocalisations, what Tilda can do is unique.

Meet Tilda, the first ever orangutan to make human vocalisations. She can click her tongue producing two calls which were never before observed in any apes, and can create sounds similar to our pronounciation of voiceless consonants (something present in several African languages). Tilda can also whistle.

It’s not clear how she learned to do all this, but it’s believed that it happened because she worked in the “entertainment business”. Tilda’s vocalisations have now been described in a paper in PLOS ONE. She uses these signals to ask for more food, even clapping and pointing in the direction of food. Biologist Adriano Lameira from the University of Amsterdam, explains:

“They are what we would call attention gathering or come-hither calls, which indeed are mostly used when the human caretakers are handling food,” Lameira said. “I would translate them into, ‘Come here and give that food to me!”

It was previously believed that apes don’t have enough control on their vocal structures to emit human-like sounds, but this clearly shows that the theory is wrong.

Image: Archive Cologne Zoo

“The extent of motoric control that great apes exert over their vocal structures, both laryngeal and supra-laryngeal, may be much higher than hitherto presumed,” the authors write in PLOS ONE. The notion that great ape calls are hard-wired and inflexible is likely an artefact of our very poor understanding of the call communication of these species, rather than that their calls are factually hard-wired or inflexible,” Lameira added.

Interestingly, this may not only help us understand if and how apes can speak, but it can also help us understand where our own speech originated from. By further studying how great apes use these sounds, we may finally understand “the conditions that brought together for the first time the two basic building blocks of speech,” as the researchers write.

“The evolutionary origins of speech remain obscure. Recently, it was proposed that speech derived from monkey facial signals which exhibit a speech-like rhythm of ~5 open-close lip cycles per second. In monkeys, these signals may also be vocalized, offering a plausible evolutionary stepping stone towards speech.”

Journal Reference: Adriano R. Lameira, Madeleine E. Hardus, Adrian M. Bartlett, Robert W. Shumaker, Serge A. Wich, Steph B. J. Menken. Speech-Like Rhythm in a Voiced and Voiceless Orangutan Call. Published: January 08, 2015DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116136

A scene of devastation is captured in an aerial survey mission by Greenpeace on Indonesia's Borneo island. Photograph: Bay Ismayo/AFP/Getty Images

P&G is driving massive deforestation and an orangutan graveyard in Indonesia

A year long investigation by Greenpeace reveals grim palm oil harvesting practices in Indonesia, where suppliers are currently engaging in massive deforestation, which severely threaten the already endangered Sumatran tigers and orangutans, shady PR tactics and intentionally lighting up forest fires. Among the findings is a horrific graveyard where  the buried remains of several orangutans were discovered just outside the land owned by two major suppliers. Greenpeace, in its report, urges the American giant Procter&Gamble to clear up its supplier’s act and only buy palm oil from companies that have a proven record of sustainable palm oil production.

Palm oil is the world’s most ubiquitous vegetable oil and a main driver of deforestation in Indonesia. The oil accounted for roughly 40 percent of the world’s vegetable oil production from 2012-2013, and it is a key ingredient in many household products, such as Procter & Gamble’s Head & Shoulders shampoo and Gillette shaving gel. In 2013 P&G bought about 462,000 tonnes of palm oil, including some from some of the world’s largest processors. Less than 10% of the palm oil used by the company is certified sustainably sourced, Greenpeace said.

“The maker of Head & Shoulders needs to stop bringing rainforest destruction into our showers,” Bustar Maitar, head of the Indonesian forest campaign at Greenpeace International, said in a press statement. ”It must clean up its act and guarantee its customers that these products are forest friendly.”

“Procter & Gamble should follow the lead of other palm oil using companies like Unilever, Nestlé and L’Oréal, which have already promised to clean up their supply chains,” Bustar said.

Perverse incentive

In a report issued in 2012 Procter & Gamble promised to achieve zero net deforestation, in accordance with the Consumer Goods Forum.  In this report, the company pledges to supply all its palm oil purchases  from responsible and sustainable sources by 2015. We’re a quarter in 2014 and apparently P&G is way off.

“Greenpeace contacted P&G about its palm oil sourcing practices in May 2013, which means it’s nearly had a year to react with a robust ‘no-deforestation’ policy that would stop exposing its customers to forest destruction,”  said a Greenpeace senior campaigner, Reece Turner, told Guardian Australia.

“In the meantime, other big palm oil consumers such as Unilever, Ferrero, L’Oreal, Delhaize, Kellogg and the world’s biggest palm oil trader, Wilmar International, have committed to no deforestation.”

One of P&G suppliers is BW Plantation, a Jakarta-based firm that is a third-party supplier for Asian Agria, a palm oil company owned by Sukanto Tanoto’s RGE Group. BW Plantation is currently watched by local authorities for the recent clearance of orangutan habitats in Central Kalimantan.  Other companies marked in the Greenpeace report are Singapore-based Musim Mas, which owns one of Asia’s largest palm oil refineries, along with two other suppliers Globalindo Alam Perkasa Estate II (GAP II) and Multipersada Gatramegah (MPG). All of these are linked with deforestation and orangutan habitat destruction in Central Kalimantan and Papua.

An orangutan graveyard


photo: Greenpeace

The most startling find is that of what can only be referred to as an orangutan graveyard, as several remains have been discovered scattered on the edge of an oil palm plantation belonging to PT Bumi Langgeng Perdanatrada (PT BLP). It’s unlikely these orangutans died of natural causes since these were found buried deep into the ground – like we all know, only humans bury the dead.

orangutan graveyard indonesia

Photo: Greenpeace

Police investigations are now in process, and it is up to them to determine how these orang-utans died and who is responsible. However, the local NGOs that originally exposed the existence of this graveyard cite local community witness reports that the orang-utans buried here were ‘murdered’, according to the Greenpeace report.

“Greenpeace believes palm oil must make a genuine contribution to Indonesia’s development,” Bustar said. “Progressive palm oil producers in the Palm Oil Innovation Group, along with ambitious commitments from big palm oil players GAR and Wilmar, prove that there is a business case for responsible palm oil.

“There is no excuse for companies like P&G, Reckitt Benckiser and Colgate Palmolive to delay immediate action on deforestation.”

Greenpeace: P&G’s dirty secret