Orangutans plan and communicate their travel plans

For a long time it was thought that only humans had the ability to anticipate future actions, whereas animals are caught in the here and now. But in recent years, clever experiments with great apes in zoos have shown that they do remember past events and can plan for their future needs. Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have now investigated whether wild apes also have this skill, following them for several years through the dense tropical swamplands of Sumatra.

It turns out that wild male orangutans do plan their travel route up to one day in advance and communicate it to other members of their species (Figure 1). In order to attract females and repel male rivals, they call in the direction in which they are going to travel. Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have found that not only captive, but also wild-living orangutans make use of their planning ability.

Figure 1. Travel maps of wild orangutans. Green arrows show “long calls”. (from van Schaik et al. 2013)

Orangutans generally journey through the forest alone, but they also maintain social relationships. Adult males sometimes emit loud ‘long calls’ to attract females and repel rivals. Their cheek pads act as a funnel for amplifying the sound in the same way as a megaphone. Females that only hear a faint call come closer in order not to lose contact. Non-dominant males on the other hand hurry in the opposite direction if they hear the call coming loud and clear in their direction (Figure 1).

Figure 2. A Orangutan males give long calls to attract females (or repel rival males). Female A perceives a faint call compared to female B, even if they are at the same distance from the calling male, because the male is facing female B. If the male is moving in the same direction as he is calling, female A should move in the direction of the male whereas B need not. (from van Schaik et al. 2013)

“To optimize the effect of these calls, it thus would make sense for the male to call in the direction of his future whereabouts, if he already knew about them”, explains Carel van Schaik. “We then actually observed that the males traveled for several hours in approximately the same direction as they had called.” In extreme cases, long calls made around nesting time in the evening predicted the travel direction better than random until the evening of the next day. Carel van Schaik and his team conclude that orangutans plan their route up to a day ahead.
In addition, the males often announced changes in travel direction with a new, better-fitting long call. The researchers also found that in the morning, the other orangutans reacted correctly to the long call of the previous evening, even if no new long call was emitted. “Our study makes it clear that wild orangutans do not simply live in the here and now, but can imagine a future and even announce their plans. In this sense, then, they have become a bit more like us”, concludes Carel van Schaik.

Source: Modified from materials provided by The University of Zurich.


Carel P. van Schaik,, Laura Damerius,, & Karin Isler (2013). Wild Orangutan Males Plan and Communicate Their Travel Direction One Day in Advance PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0074896

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