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December 8, 2013

I love orangutans, but they aren't our "cousins"

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

More by this author...

A cartoon shows two women at a coffee shop. One is holding a book, Secrets of How Orangutans Speak, and saying: It's done wonders to our marriage.

I flew more than 15,000 km, from Toronto to Kuching, Malaysia to visit endangered orangutans in the wild.

The turn-on was not the cartoon but was Dr. H. Lyn White Miles’s fascinating discovery, “We learned that an orangutan can tell lies. Deception is an important indicator of language abilities since it requires a deliberate and intentional misrepresentation of reality. In order to deceive, you must be able to see events from the other person's perspective and negate his or her perception.”

I love orangutans, but I don’t believe they are our "cousins."

Dr. Alfred Russell Wallace, the British biologist does not agree with me as he wrote about the orangutans in his 1890 500-page classic The Malay Archipelago.

Wallace wrote in the preface, “To Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, I dedicate this book not only as a token of personal esteem and friendship but also to express my deep admiration for his genius and his works.” 

Orangutans are the least vocal of the great apes. Their most distinctive noise is the 'long call', which lasts up to two minutes and is used by a male to advertise his arrival.

Like chimpanzees, orangutans can learn human sign language. Dr. Miles taught one orangutan named Chantek around 140 signs. The great apes communicate intelligently using an unspoken vocabulary of gestures, movements and smacks. Many of the gestures are humanlike.

Gestures include hitting the ground, swatting, grabbing, and dangling upside down. Although studies of great ape body language have been carried out, none has focused so closely on the intentional meanings of specific gestures.

I visited the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, south of Kuching, Sarawak in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Since 1975 the 1600-acre reserve and its centre have been accepting animals either orphaned, injured, or rescued from captivity and reintroducing them back into the wild.

Of the estimated 60,000 orangutans existing in the wild, some 50,000 live on the island of Borneo. Female orangutans typically produce only one offspring every seven or eight years, hence the dwindling population. Seduku - the "grandmother" at the rehabilitation centre - has given birth to several offspring. Ritchie - the alpha male in the refuge - weighs over 300 pounds.

Orangutan means "forest people" in the local language; the name fits well given the primates' superior intelligence and human-like personalities. In 1996 a team of researchers witnessed a group of orangutans making sophisticated tools - and sharing them - for extracting seeds from fruit.

“The orangutan is the most mysterious of the great apes because relatively little is known about it,” said Dr. Miles, “Prehistorically they had a much larger range than today, living in varied environments throughout Asia. Orangutans are now found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where their habitat ranges from hilly and mountainous regions to swampy lowlands. Previously considered to be exclusively arboreal, or tree-dwelling, we now know that orangutans travel long distances on the ground and visit caves. They are primarily fruit-eaters but have a wide diet, which may determine their large size and social organization, which is more extensive than was once believed.”

In his classic Among Orangutans: Red Apes and The Rise of Human Culture, Dr. Carel Van Schaik agrees with Dr. Miles, “There are significant differences between humans and great apes, but we share 98-99 per cent of our genetic make-up with them.”

Van Schaik observes that orangutans do something clever that other great apes don't do: they use leaves to make rain hats and leak-proof roofs over their sleeping nests. And like chimpanzees, orangutans sometimes make tools for later use, an apparent example of conscious planning.

Apes began as slow-moving, slow-growing, slow-aging animals with quick minds. Once these minds began to invent tools, van Schaik argues, apes became increasingly dependent on culture, and in a recurrent positive feedback loop, selection favored even larger brains, which improved culture, and so on; great apes started out smart because they were safe from predators and ended up even smarter because their large brains and slow life histories allowed culture to develop and flourish.

“Chimpanzees and gorillas are generally believed to be more closely related to humans than are orangutans, primarily on the basis of genetic studies, although this has been questioned.,” added Miles, “At odds with those studies, orangutans have a surprising number of behavioral and biological similarities with humans, which has produced a puzzle. Of all the apes, orangutans are most similar to humans in gestation period, language and the orangutan brain hemispheric asymmetry, characteristics of dentition, sexual physiology, copulatory behavior, hormonal levels, hair pattern, mammary gland placement and insightful style of cognition. Why would orangutans have these behavioral and morphological similarities to humans given their genetic distance?”

Orangutans have amazing abilities that need wider recognition within both the general population and the scientific community. Cognitive studies with orangutans have shown that they are at least as intelligent as the African apes, and have revealed a human-like insightful thinking style characterized by longer attention spans and quiet deliberate action. Drs Susan Essock and Duane Rumbaugh commented: 'Chimpanzees are often reputed to be the "smartest" of the apes, and orangutans have the reputation of being dull and sluggish. Such tags are unfortunate and contrary to the results of studies.'

“Orangutans make shelters and other tools in their natural setting. In captivity, they learn to tie knots, recognize themselves in mirrors, use one tool to make another, and are the most skilled of the apes in manipulating objects,” wrote Dr. Miles in Language and the Orangutan: The Old 'Person' of the Forest, “They are the escape artists of zoos because of their ability to cleverly manipulate bolts and wires to get out of their enclosures, a trait with which I have become very familiar. In discussing these tendencies, Benjamin Beck has compared the probable use of a screwdriver by chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The gorilla would largely ignore it, the chimpanzee would try to use it in a number of ways other than as a screwdriver, and:

The orangutan would notice the tool at once but ignore it lest a keeper discover the oversight. If a keeper did notice, the ape would rush to the tool and surrender it only in trade for a quantity of preferred food. If the keeper did not notice, the ape would wait until night and then proceed to use the screwdriver to pick the locks or dismantle the cage and escape.”

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