Do Orangutans Have Human-like Memories?

Researchers have recently discovered that some ape species, chimps and orangutans, may have a memory similar to humans. In the past, scientists believed that time did not exist for animals. That animals only experienced the “now” and could not experience the past via memory. However Gema Martin-Ordas, PhD has been working with orangutans and chimps at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany to see if they can access “autobiographical” memories using a cue. Autobiographical memories are personal memories involving “I”, instead of memories involving the surroundings. Animals can remember routes in their habitats, such as where the trees are that produce. However, scientists are not sure if animals have the sense of self to think “I remember using this particular pathway to find fruit in this tree.”

Martin-Ordas and her colleagues took eight chimps and four orangutans and placed them in caged testing rooms. The apes watched as Martin-Ordas placed a banana on the outside of the room. The apes then watched as she placed two sticks of differing lengths in two separate boxes. Only one of the sticks was the right length to get the banana. Each ape had to find the right tool, head back to the room, and then use the tool to get to the banana. Each ape did it four times and all were successful in completing it.

For the next few years Martin-Ordas and her colleagues performed similar tests with the apes again, but not the exact same ones. Last year the original test was performed exactly the same. It was hoped that the original cues, Martin-Ordas, the room, and the puzzle, would remind the apes that they had to go search for the stick to get the banana. All, but one of the apes successfully completed the test.

This experiment are making scientists reevaluate the memory capabilities of animals, at least of apes.

Orangutans may be able to hold personal memories like humans can.

Orangutans may be able to hold personal memories like humans can.



Brookfield Zoo’s Orangutans

In 2012, I got to visit the Brookfield Zoo with a friend. It is a large, beautiful zoo. However my favorite part, shockingly, was the orangutans. They are located in Tropic World: Asia. There are five orangutans: two adult males, two adult females, and one juvenile female. Maggie and Brunei form one group, and Ben, Sophia, and Kekasih form another. They rotate which group is on exhibit.  




Maggie is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born on July, 18, 1961 at the San Diego Zoo. She is currently the oldest orangutan in an AZA zoo in North America. She was transferred to the Brookfield Zoo in February of 1995 from the Milwaukee Zoo. When she arrived to Brookfield Zoo, Maggie had a weight problem, brittle hair, dry skin, and bad digestion. After some research, the keepers and vet staff discovered that Maggie had a thyroid problem. With training, medicine, and a high fiber diet, Maggie has lost 90 lbs., her hair and skin are healthy, and she is digesting her food just fine. That is an extreme makeover any human would envy.

In April of 1995, Mukah, a former orangutan at the Brookfield Zoo, was born at the Lincoln Park Zoo. He was rejected by his mother soon after birth. A search was put out nationwide for a surrogate mother so he wouldn’t have to be hand-raised. A mother was found in the same city. Maggie, who reared four children of her own, picked Mukah up and raised him as her own. She even began lactating even though she hadn’t given birth in years.










Brunei is male hybrid orangutan. He was born On March 29, 1991 at the Brookfield Zoo. Over the last few years, Brunei has gone from a scrawny, shy orangutan to a husky, confident orangutan. Maturation of Brunei has given him an “extreme makeover” as well. Now that he has the muscles and the cheek pads, Brunei tries to show off to the other male, Ben. Brunei will flex his arms and hold heavy objects over his head to show Ben he is strong and to be feared. Ben though also has a fun side. He loves enrichment, especially if it involves food. Then again, who doesn’t?








Kekasih is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born October 6, 2008 at the Brookfield Zoo to Sophia and Ben. She has made a friend with a white-cheeked gibbon earlier this year. Recently the BZ combined the orangutans and gibbons into one exhibit. Multi-species exhibits provide lots of enrichment for all species involved. It creates a more natural habitat for the animals. The young white-cheeked gibbon and Kekasih have bonded and have been seen playing with each other.









Sophia is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born on February 18, 1981 at the Brownsville Zoo. She was transferred to the Brookfield Zoo in July 1992 from the San Diego Zoo. As an infant, Sophia had to be hand-raised by humans because her mother rejected her. Because orangutans learn behaviors from their mothers, Sophia did not know how to be a proper mom to her offspring. However because orangutans are intelligent and can learn by example, keepers were able to successfully teach Sophia how to hold, feed, and care for her infant. She was the first orangutan to be taught from humans how to be a good mother. 


Ben is a male Bornean orangutan. He was born on October 8, 1978 at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. He was transferred from the Omaha Zoo to Brookfield in July 1992. Ben is the father of Kekasih.