Orangutans Can "Talk" About the Past: Study
Wed, April 21, 2021

Orangutans Can "Talk" About the Past: Study

Orangutans live in a solitary existence, spending most of their time in trees. They are known not only for their distinctive red fur and long and powerful arms but also for their intelligence / Photo by: Ridwan0810 via Wikimedia Commons

 

While animals could not speak, much less master advanced language techniques, they have other ways of communicating. Birds chirp, frogs croak, whales sing, dogs bark, etc. They even use body language to interact with humans or other animals. But scientists have been particularly interested in how orangutans communicate. After all, they are closely related to humans, sharing with us 97% of their DNA sequence.

Orangutans live in a solitary existence, spending most of their time in trees. They are known not only for their distinctive red fur and long and powerful arms but also for their intelligence. This species is considered as the “gardeners” of the forest because they play an integral role in seed dispersal in their habitats. Unfortunately, orangutans face an increased risk of extinction.

The Status of Orangutans

In 2016, Bornean orangutans were declared “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A 2018 study published in the journal Current Biology reported that there has been a staggering loss of 148,500 orangutans in Borneo from 1999 to 2015. Researchers estimated that the number of these animals on the island stands between 70,000 and 100,000. This means that their population more than halved over the past 16 years. 

Serge Wich, a co-author of the report at Liverpool John Moores University, stated that they didn’t expect the large decline of the orangutan population. “When we did the analyses, we ran them, again and again, to figure out if we had made a mistake somewhere. You think the numbers can’t be that high but unfortunately they are,” he said. 

Indeed, orangutans are disappearing at an alarming rate. Their forests have been lost or degraded. Continuous hunting of the species threatens the existence of this magnificent animal. ”Immediate action is needed to reform industries that have pushed orangutans to the brink of extinction. Consumers can make a difference through only supporting brands and retailers that buy sustainable palm oil,” Emma Keller at the World Wildlife Fund said.

In 2016, Bornean orangutans were declared “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) / Photo by: Daniel Kleeman via Flickr

 

Highly Intelligent Animals

Previous studies showed that the great apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans are among the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom. Aside from exhibiting individual personalities, orangutans are renowned for their high intelligence. They use tools not only for foraging and nest building but also to aid acoustic communication, using leaves to amplify their “kiss-squeak” vocalizations. 

Also, orangutans are known for producing babbling vocalizations and mimicking the rhythm of speech. A recent study published in the journal Nature showed that their vocal abilities have been largely underestimated. The researchers allowed the captive orangutans at the US' Indianapolis Zoo to play a musical instrument that includes the kazoo called membranophone. Players of this instrument must hum or talk into the kazoo so they can play it. 

According to Phys.org, a web-based science, research, and technology news service, the orangutans were able to produce sounds of varying pitches and durations in response to kazoo demonstrations by the human experimenters within minutes. This not only showcased the vocal abilities of these creatures but also proved that they can acquire skills as well. 

Orangutans Can Communicate About the Past

Scientists have found new evidence that shows how orangutans are indeed extremely intelligent species. Most of the time, wild orangutans let out a loud kiss-squeak when they spot a predator such as tigers as if to say, “I’ve seen you.” It is also believed that this noise lets other orangutans know danger is near. But a 2018 study reported hearing orangutans making this call long after predators have passed. This presents the first evidence that primates other than humans can “talk” about the past.

Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, reported that researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have discovered that orangutans can “talk” about past events using displaced reference. Displaced reference, which is considered a primary hallmark of language, is the ability to share about something that is not present at the moment or the information about a past or future event. 

It has been known that only humans possess this particular communication skills and never in the animal kingdom. Adriano Lameira, a primatologist at St. Andrews, was examining alarm calls in orangutans in Sumatra’s dense Ketambe forest when he discovered that orangutans are also capable of using displaced reference. The researchers set up a total of 24 trials where they made an artificial “predator” by having one scientist crawl across the forest floor draped in a sheet of four varying designs: tiger print; white; white with multicolored spots; and an abstract color pattern. 

The draped scientist crawled near an orangutan mother that was sitting in a tree. The “predator” would pause for two minutes when the orangutan saw it and then moved along until it was out of sight. The researchers observed that in 12 of those trials the mother orangutan waited an average of seven minutes before emitting an alarm call. In one instance, the orangutan waited almost 20 minutes before raising an alarm. Lameira explained that the reason for the delay of its alarm call is to not make matters worse. Indeed, if the orangutan made the noise while the predator was still in the vicinity could pose more danger to it and its infant. Thus, the delay could be a safety-first decision and then the need to alert others. This also teaches the child about the danger that passed. According to Science Mag, the award-winning daily news site of the journal Science, not responding immediately to a stimulus is considered a sign of intelligence. This kind of skill has not been observed in other primates like monkeys, lemurs, and great apes. 

“Postponing behavior in time and space inherently expresses the role of high cognitive processing of the stimulus and general intelligence. Our observations, thus, suggest a scenario for language evolution in hominids,” the researchers said.

Nature has always been one to surprise us.

Scientists have found new evidence that shows how orangutans are indeed extremely intelligent species / Photo by: Denis and Chris Luyten-De Hauwere via Wikimedia Commons