Archive for the ‘Pongo’ Category

I didn’t understand the value of hunting until I was 10 years old. I never had an opinion on it either way, but I could never understand why someone would just want to go out and kill an animal. It wasn’t until I was watching my dad, uncle, and cousins sit on their porch and spy a white-tailed deer in the backyard. Where we live, these deer are common. Not exactly habituated, but it’s common practice in more rural areas to provision them with salt licks and feed; if nothing else, to get a good look at them while you’re looking outside and basking in the northern Midwestern landscape.

On this particular night in late-autumn, celebrating my birthday with my cousin, they had spotted a deer eating from the salt-lick. It was a male and he had a gorgeous set of antlers–I can’t recall how many points, but enough to make my uncle and cousin jump from their seats and slowly creep towards where they had a small gun stowed. Carefully, my uncle opened the door and a loud pop! sound later, the deer ran off. He had missed, but afterwords, I looked at my dad and asked, “Why’d he shoot the deer? It wasn’t eating his garden or anything.”

“The deer population this year is high; if we don’t hunt, they’ll cause a lot of trouble for us and themselves.” He stated, matter-of-factually. I didn’t understand what it meant at the time, as I dropped the subject in lieu of birthday cake, but as I grew older–I understood. Without hunting, the populations would rise to unsustainable levels; more deer would mean less available food when resources were already scarce in the winter months and potentially lead to more dangerous accidents for drivers, as my aunt and grandmother both experienced first-hand years later. But, at the time, I understood more why it would be dangerous for us–which later gave me enough curiosity to understand why it would be bad for “them.”

Yesterday, Dr. John C. Mitani of the University of Michigan wrote an opinion article on the endangerment and potential extinction of both lesser and great apes. In it, he brings up a multitude of reasons for saving great apes from behavioral quirks, the primate heritage, and drawing connections between human primates and non-human primates. He even points out that politicians in Congress have put aside party differences in being able to provide conservation aide for apes. It was well-written and provided a bevy of reasons in which people should consider taking action to provide great apes with the aide they require in order to maintain populations and mitigating anthropogenic effects.

While there is nothing I would contest against what Dr. Mitani says, it’s what he doesn’t say that’s most interesting to me (which, could also have been removed due to editing or other reasons–I’ve had my share of time in journalism and I understand that not everything written goes to print). And this is something I’ve noticed before when people talk about conservation and taking action.

A critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and a caretaker at Bukit Lawang (Photo from: WikiMedia Commons)

For me, before I had been given an education in conservation, to understand the importance of doing so was best expressed in a practical, utilitarian format–how conservation tactics (like hunting) provided benefits to both humans (in terms of safety) and wildlife populations (in terms of sustainability).

I believe it’s possible to foment interest in conservation by using the anthropogenic hook and then using primates as further bait to take action. Harcourt et al. (1986) discovered that knowledge about wildlife species was a critical factor in attitudes about wildlife. Furthermore, negative perceptions of conservation are driven through a lack of education in how it can affect both wildlife and humans (Fiallo and Jacobsen 1995). In knowing that we are also great apes and share a heritage, why are we apt to leave ourselves out of this equation? Particularly when helping ourselves is one of the best things we can do for our evolutionary lineage. Kofi Annon, Secretary General of the United Nations once wrote:

Saving great apes is about saving people. By conserving the great apes, we can protect the livelihoods of many people who rely on forests for food, clean water, and much else. Indeed, the fate of the great apes has both practical and symbolic implications for the ability of human beings to move towards a more sustainable future.

In addition to the effects helping humans can have on non-human primates, in turn, non-human primates have an effect on us. Recently, it was discovered seeds ingested and passed through orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) guts in addition to being spat out can remain viable and germinate (Nielsen et al. 2011). Given that orangutans can consume around 118 species of fruiting plant and a large day range, orangutans can disperse seeds throughout a great range in the Sumatran rain forest, potentially providing more future fruit trees for both human and wildlife consumption (Nielsen et al. 2011).

When written like that, the purpose for conservation changes: not only does conserving apes help the environment, but it helps others–including us. Humans nor great apes exist in a vacuum; we frequently co-exist and affect each other. But maybe that’s where the discomfort and hesitance in using a more utilitarian approach lies.

I understand the utilitarian format is not without potential problems: in approaching ape conservation from a “What can it do for us?” perspective, we can run the risk of focusing only on anthropogenic needs rather than the needs of both.

I also realize thinking about just ourselves is part of the issue. I’m not sure if I believe the trope that humans are inherently selfish and the like; and definitely, there is a sense of greed that needs to be addressed. But if we need to be taking action immediately, why aren’t we willing to combine the two more frequently when we talk about conservation if it means it will change perceptions and get people to act?

Regardless of thoughts on human influence, we are a part of ecosystems all over the world, for better or worse. I welcome any readers to share their thoughts on this subject.


Fiallo, E.A. & Jacobsen, S.K. (1995). Local communities and protected areas: attitudes of rural residents towards conservation and Machalilla National Park, Ecuador. Env Conserv, 22: 241-249.

Harcourt, A.H., Pennington, H., & Weber, A.W. (1986). Public attitudes to wildlife and conservation in the Third World. Oryx, 20: 152-154.

Nielsen, N.H., Jacobsen, M.W., Graham, L.L.L.B., Morrogh-Bernard, H.C., D’Arcy, L.J., & Harrison, M.E. (2011). Successful germination of seeds following through orangutan guts. J Trop Ecol, 27: 433-435.


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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org In light of Endangered Species Day, I found an interesting study involving one of my favorite endangered species, the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) that resonated with me.  When I was younger, I was a picky child; new foods were scrutinized and judged by smell, appearance, and if I was bold enough—taste and texture.  One day, after eating some new type of cereal, my mouth had an inky taste and upon looking in a mirror, my mouth was filled with blue ink.   I had unintentionally consumed the toy, but from then on, exceptionally crunchy foods became linked in my head with ink and a blue mouth.  It was a little jarring and I thought I was going to die at the time (in typical melodramatic fashion), but nothing really happened.  Eventually, I got over this as I became more social and attempted new foods recommended to me by friends and sharing.

Nenette, one of the most famous orangutans and star of self-titled documentary.

Unlike my younger self, it turns out orangutans are not hesitant to attempt to try new foods too.  In a study performed by Gustafsson, Krief, and Saint Jalme (2011), four captive orangutans (including the famous, Nénette–who was removed halfway through the study for surgery) were given 11 fresh plants and 4 infused plants in a beverage (containing marjoram, thyme, savory, and pellitory-of-the-wall) to determine the individual and group learning methods of trying new foods.  The four orangutans were kept in solitary conditions and then group conditions to measure rates of attempting new foods.

There were four behaviors investigated in conjunction with the consumption of the plant: holding, sniffing, tasting, and ingestion. To the researchers, tasting was defined as “licked, nibbled, or at least held to mouth” (or, in the 4 infused plants case, <100 ml of liquid) whereas ingestion was “a significant amount of the plant eaten” (or >100 ml of liquid) (Gustafsson, Krief, and Saint Jalme 2011). Interestingly, while holding was a common behavior for the first sessions in both group and individual settings, tasting and ingestion were especially high in the infused plants in the first session with the marjoram infusion, the first of the experiments. It is also curious that thyme was also consumed in large amounts when it was strongly infused in the first experiments. In the second experiments, the marjoram remained the same, but increased in thyme. Whereas, savory and pellitory-of-the-wall were low for tasting and ingestion in both sessions, suggesting orangutans might have a preference for certain tastes.

Orangutans consumed 9 out of the 11 fresh plants presented between the first individual and group sessions, indicating low neophobia.  Given that food availability fluctuates in areas where orangutans are endemic due to seasonality and potential climate change, being flexible in food consumption may be necessary to survive times when fruits and other preferred foods are unavailable (Knott 1998; Felton et al. 2003).  Assuming this trait is found in non-captive orangutans as well, dietary plasticity can increase survivability by falling back on newer foods.

Furthermore, as orangutans experience habitat loss and get removed from the pet trade and placed into rehabilitation centers, the potential for disease transmission increases as more individuals come into closer contact with one another.  In these situations, malaria parasites are measured to increase as individuals have more contact than they normally would in non-captive/semi-captive settings (Wolfe et al. 2003). As this occurs, it is possible that the flexibility in trying new foods will lead to more consumption of medicinal plants that would reduce morbidity effects.

Although testing orangutans’ flexibility in trying new foods seems superficial on first glance, it has great significance for conservation purposes for both potential food availability and zoopharmacognosy. Given that orangutans are an endangered species, it is warranted to study the willingness to attempt new foods for captive/semi-captive conditions and also fallback foods when preferred fruiting trees are removed due to logging.

Edit: Because it’s so good and really worth sharing, Barbara J. King also wrote about this study too. I really enjoy her take on it and if you’re reading this, it’s well worth your time to read hers. This study is just too good to not read about and get different perspectives on.


Felton, A.M., Engstrom, L.M., Felton, A., & Knott, C.D. (2003). Orangutan population density, forest structure, and fruit availability in hand-logged and unlogged peat swamp forests in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Biol Conserv, 114(1): 91-101.

Gustafsson E, Krief S, & Saint Jalme M (2011). Neophobia and Learning Mechanisms: How Captive Orangutans Discover Medicinal Plants. Folia primatologica; international journal of primatology, 82 (1), 45-55 PMID: 21525772

Knott, C.D. (1998). Changes in orangutan caloric intake, energy balance, and ketones in response to fluctuating fruit availability. Int J Primatol, 19(6): 1061-1079.

Wolfe, N.D., Karesh, W.B., Kilbourn, A.M., Cox-Singh, J., Bosi, E.J., Rahman, H.A., Tassy Prosser, A., Singh, B., Andau, M., & Spielman, A. (2002). The impact of ecological conditions on the prevalence of malaria among orangutans. Vector Borne Zoo Dis, 2(2): 97-103.

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I currently live in one of the states going off to the Super Bowl. I used to work for one of the teams and while I have some memories (which, coincidentally, are some of the best stories I have and make for great icebreakers), I largely don’t care about football or most sports. However, in light of the World Cup and Paul the Octopus, many zoos are attempting to see whether their orangutans are capable of predicting the next big winner.

The above shows a clip of the orangutans at the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, UT in 2009 picking the winners of that year’s Lombardi Trophy. This year, Inji of the Oregon Zoo and Alex of the Chaffee Zoo of California predict a Blitzburgh victory, while Baby Bob of the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina and Eli of the Hogle Zoo are both donning green and gold.

Inji of the Oregon Zoo correctly prognosticating last year's Super Bowl winner, the New Orleans Saints. (Photo by: Portland Tribune.)

While it’s unlikely there’s any sort of actual legitimacy to the ability of these primates being able to determine the big winner, the orangutans received a great source of enrichment. The zoos were able to offer a fun way of reaching out to the community and get people interested in visiting the orangutans for events such as these, which may, in itself, be a form of enrichment to orangutans.

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Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) in Monkey Mountain, Inuyama, Japan. Taken by a personal friend on her trip a few years back. (Photo by: R. Sim)

Hey hey hey, y’all. Monkey Day 2010 is here at last. While I intend to make something like this an annual tradition provided I’m still running this blog, it will hopefully also be a special edition for Four Stone Hearth as well. The Fourth Stone Hearth is a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology in the widest (American) sense of that word. Here, anthropology is the study of humankind, throughout all times and places, focusing primarily on four lines of research: archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, bio-physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. I’ll do my best to make it as inclusive as possible with what I’m given to accommodate for all four branches so everyone can get something out of today’s most wonderful time of the year. That said, there’s monkey business to get done, so let’s get to it:

First up, we’ve got Krystal at Anthropology in Practice with a post on “The Evolutionary Roots of Talking with Our Hands.” The article does a really great job of examining gestures within language acquisition and examines it through an evolutionary perspective of our primate ancestors such as siamangs, captive gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. She also posted a really great video of the famous bonobo at the Great Ape Trust, Kanzi, working with a lexigram as an example of communicating with gestures.

Speaking of field work, this was taken by me during my favorite field work moment at La Suerte Biological Field Station in Costa Rica when this capuchin (Cebus capucinus) spat out the seed in her mouth on top of my head. Love. (Photo by: A.V.S.)

New blogger to the scene, Atelid, over at The Primate Chronicles has some pretty great articles for people to look at. One specifically written for today’s special issue, “I can see you, but I can hear you better: a little known fact about Tarsiers,” one of the (in my opinion) most underrated and unappreciated prosimians. She also wrote about some of her favorite field work moments and gave a great example for what it’s like to have some of the best positive experiences during field work in her “My Top 5 Fieldwork Moments.”

As always, Raymond Ho, FCD, or The Prancing Papio, has some insight into a very timely discovery to science with Another addition to the Fork-marked lemur species? Raymond does a great job of explaining the details about this new information and what to make of it in the context of the information we have currently.

Over at her blog, Barbara J. King writes about The Cognitive Watershed and Nut-Cracking Monkey Pushback wherein she explains one of the finer (and, in my personal opinion, coolest) aspects of primatology, nut-cracking, and uses bearded capuchin monkeys (Cebus libidosus) to exemplify these foraging techniques. Pretty timely as the holidays approach, eh?

DNApes has also got a fantastic article that’s been hitting the news recently about Monitoring the Health of Endangered, Wild Chimpanzees. I’m particularly interested in disease ecology in primates, so this article was a special treat for me given that it looks at the potential for retroviral diseases in chimpanzees and the risks posed to hunters as a result.

Speaking of an "elak apa," this is another picture I took while studying in Costa Rica. This is a (obviously) male mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata). (Photo by: A.V.S.)

Have you ever been curious about how to say “Bad Monkey” in a language other than your own? Well, here’s your chance! A clever great ape managed to figure out how to say it in ways from Braille, British Sign Language, Semaphore, and everything else you could imagine.

Finally, I think Kevin at the Creativity Well sums up Monkey Day best of all with his post, “Unleashing my inner monkey“–I’ll let you read that one on your own because I think it does a great job of marrying both personal life aspects (even for those who aren’t primatologists) with one’s primate self.

The next round of Four Stone Hearth (#109) will be hosted at Testimony of the Spade. If you’re interested, send Magnus or the always-lovely, Afarensis your articles or nominate some of your fellow Anthropoblogging peers. This week was a special issue dedicated towards primates, but next week will be returning to the usual format.

As far as Serious Monkey Business goes–in the near future, expect some articles on the ethics of habituation from a biocentric perspective, macaques, and also looking at primatology from a Mauss-ian perspective. Until then, Happy Monkey Day, everybody!

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Admittedly, I’ve been a little too pre-occupied with other things than blogging right now. I found out a few weeks ago I’d be losing my position at the primate library I work at because we lost a major grant that sustained our department, so I’ve been busy with trying to find a job and getting ready to move into a new apartment. That said, I don’t have anything extremely insightful for anyone and probably won’t until classes get started up again in September. Until then, enjoy!

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Today I began my week-long research project at the Como Zoo on the orangutans they have there. And now, more than ever do I seethe that I couldn’t complete my research project in the field.

The Como Zoo is impressive for a free zoo; it has Sumatran Orangutans (an adult male and female, adolescent(?) female, and a juvenile male), two Western Lowland Gorillas, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkeys, and a few other primates (Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth not included though it’s located in the primate exhibit with the White-faced Saki Monkey and Geoffroy’s Tamarins). But it’s a free zoo at the mercy of tax dollars and donations–and it shows in the exhibits and unfortunately, the animals.

While I was there, I noticed the juvenile male orangutan performing stereotypic behavior (saluting). After alerting the zookeeper about the behavior (who had no idea what stereotypic behavior was), I began to pay attention to the environment of the surroundings even closer. I wasn’t paying attention the first time the saluting behavior happened, but the second was very shortly after a child started pounding on the glass and screaming.

And then, it got me wondering. How many of these stereotypic behaviors are really brought on by the crowds that come to be entertained and (maybe) learn about the animals? Certainly, the manner in which the primates were reared has an effect (Mallapur & Choudhury 2003), but surely, that can’t be all as in this particular case, the juvenile was born at the Como Zoo and is still reared by his birth mother. Housing may also play a role (Mallapur 2005), but I think it’s also important to consider the role of the crowds as well.

I think at this point, one of the best things the Como Zoo can do for its primates is to make a sign for incoming guests and let them know of things that upset the primates–I may be too optimistic, but I want to believe most people don’t want to inconvenience the animals and would be considerate if they had the knowledge that some of their actions may negatively stress out the animals.

I know I have a lot of friends who have no idea what I mean, so here’s what I’d probably put on that sign:

          Please don’t do the following behaviors (it makes the primates upset!):

            – Smile or make eye contact. They see this as a threat!

            – Tap the glass or scream; it startles the primates!

            – Make noises to rile the monkeys–this stresses them out.

I don’t expect parents or kids to know better–hell, without my training at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center or in my classes, I wouldn’t have known these behaviors were bad. But here’s hoping that someone reads this and goes to the zoo next time with a little better etiquette for both the animals and the zoo-goers.

Mallapur, A. & Choudhury, B.C.  (2003).  Behavioral abnormalities in captive non-human primatesJournal of Applied Welfare Science, 6(4), 275-284.

Mallapur, A.  (2005).  Managing primates in zoos:  Lessons from animal behaviourCurrent Science, 89(7), 1214-1219.

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