Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Ain't Monkeying Around

"Orang hutan" means "forest man" in one of the many native language of Indonesia, and the remarkable intelligence of our long-armed cousin in the mimicry of human behavior further justifies this title. Gerd Schuster took several stunning photos visually capturing the intelligence of the orangutans for his new book, Thinkers of the Jungle.

My favorite of the photos features a male orangutan, grasping an overhanging branch in his left hand, using a wooden pole in an attempt to spear fish in the local river. The photo was taken in Borneo on the island of Kaja, and the intrepid ape had witnessed local fishermen use the spears on the nearby Gohong River. According to the photographer, the orangutan was unsuccessful in his endeavor but later succeeded by using the same pole to catch fish already trapped in locals' fishing lines.

Monkey Business: An orangutan tries to spear a fish for dinner
Tool use in orangutans was observed by primatologist Birute Galdikas in ex-captive populations as far back as in 1982. In 1994, Carel van Schaik documented the great apes developing tools to pry open and eat fruits covered in needle-like barbs that were normally painful to handle. Schaik continued to observed sophisticated tool manufacture and use in the wild by the orangutans who also adjusted their tools according to the nature of the task at hand. Interestingly, this use of tools also indicates cultural behavior as the tool technique is socially transmitted.

Unfortunately, orangutanswhile being the two exclusively Asian species of extant great apesare endangered and currently only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. The island of Kaja, where this photo was captured, is unique as it's where apes are re-released after being rescued and rehabilitated.

If you're interested in reading more about the plight of the orangutans, please see this blog post or watch Sir Terry Pratchett's newly released and excellent documentary, Facing Extinction.

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