Like us, orangutans are handy with alarms and fishing
New study reinforces that it is unsurprising we share 97% DNA with our endangered friends
Orangutans have been swinging from the branch of one public issue to another over the past few days, just as new research on their sophisticated minds emerges.
The Indonesian government released a report in which it claimed that orangutan populations increased by more than 10% between 2015 and 2017. No sooner was the ink dry on the report, and researchers across the globe slammed the methodology, saying the results were unscientific and agenda-driven in the extreme.
Hot on the heels of this scandal, a major retailer in the UK produced an animated advert, with voice-over by Emma Thompson, showing the mass destruction that the human use of palm oil was having on orangutan habitats. The British government then banned it, saying it was too political, and another international outcry ensued.
These two incidents have raised the prominence of the beautiful primates in the minds of many, just as other research is published on how their early-warning alarm system when in danger is highly sophisticated and mirrors the same roots as our own early development in the use of spoken language.
It shows how mom orangutans delay raising the alarm when a predator is near, making a quick calculation as to whether calling out will only alert the predator to her exact location, or will scare it off. Similar to humans with our cries for help or even panic buttons, we make an assessment: will shouting out or pressing the panic button summon help and scare a burglar off, or will it make the said burglar pounce more quickly? If we’re in a house and we hear burglars, our calling out might simply alert the burglar to our exact location.
Interestingly, this phenomenon of a delayed alarm call has only ever been detailed in human beings and it is considered an early component of language development, so it is fascinating that it has now been observed in orangutans.
Adriano Lameira, from St Andrews University in the UK and one of the lead researchers, says: “After seeing a predator nearby, Sumatran orangutan mothers temporarily withheld calling out in alarm, representative of a process in humans called ‘displaced reference’, and seen here for the first time in a wild, non-human primate.”
These observations in orangutans – one of our closest living relatives who are 97% the same as us – suggest that this vocal phenomenon requires higher cognition and that its emergence could be “one of the cornerstones of language”.
The researchers say that, to date, experts have not been able to conclusively attribute displaced reference to wild primates.
The same researchers worked with other international teams in another study and found that the apes “spontaneously could manufacture hook tools out of straight wire (for fishing) within the very first trial, and in a second task, unbent curved wire to make a straight tool”.
Perhaps these studies should not surprise us: not only do they share 97% of our DNA, they also have long-term memories, can use a variety of sophisticated tools in the wild, and each night design and make a nest in which to sleep out of foliage and branches.