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.



Want To Buy An Orangutan For $200?

In a northern region on the island of Sumatra, named Aceh, lays the Limbat’s Zoo. This Zoo holds quite a few native species, including crocodiles, orangutans, sun bears, pangolins, hornbills, and gibbons. You’d think this would be a fun place to visit, but this zoo is not like your typical zoo in the States. These animals are for sale. It’s more like a large pet store than a zoo. The visitors come to check the animals out and can buy them if they want, pretty cheap too. A leopard can go for $25. And to show that this is a place that is transitory and severely frugal, the animals are either packed in small cages or tethered to trees and fed very little. This is the unfortunate truth for the exotic animal pet trade. People catch these animals and try to sell them for a quick buck. The pet trade is actually illegal in Indonesia, but there are hardly any prosecutions. It has a lot to do with government funding. There just isn’t enough police officers to go around.

Over the last decade, the exotic pet trade has seen an increase in the demand for these rare creatures. They are kept as pets, considered a delicacy, or is believed to have some medicinal purposes. These species are seen as a status symbol, so with the rise of income in the Indonesian cities came with it a rise in the demand for these endangered species. The poverty of the small villages that are near the rain forests are also perpetuating the pet trade. Poachers will persuade the villagers for very little money to go and trap the animals. It is a vicious cycle. Education and economic support for the rural communities  are vital steps in stopping the pet trade.


Kansas City Zoo Orangutans

In early May, I got to visit the Kansas City Zoo. I got a personal tour from one of my friends, a zookeeper in the Discovery section. It was unfortunately a rainy, cold day so a lot of the animals were not outside. However I got to see the animals I mainly wanted to see, the orangutans. Thanks to their inside enclosure. Three orangutans were hanging out by the window, checking me out as I checked them out. The baby especially was adorable. Kali, who shares my name, followed me along the glass and made funny faces. She was too adorable. There are 6 orangutans at the KCZ, split into two groups: Berani and TK; Rufus, Jill, Josie, and Kalijon.


Photo: Orangutan

Rufus is a Bornean orangutan who was born at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago on October 8, 1988. He was at the Hogle Zoo for a bit before being transferred to the KCZ in May 2003. He is Jill’s partner. When I visited, he was hanging out on the fire hose swing. Kali came and interacted with him a bit, but went back to the window.




Jill is a Bornean orangutan who was born at the Los Angeles Zoo on May 25, 1976. She was transferred to the KSZ in October of 1988. Jill is Josie’s mother and Kali’s surrogate mother. After her partner died, Jill was paired with Rufus for companionship. While pregnant with Josie, Jill was monitored by scientists.  Her’s was the first pregnancy to be followed completely through. This allowed the scientists to learn more about orangutans and potentially about their behavior in the wild. While I was at the KCZ, Jill was hanging out by the window and interacted with Kali. Jill was living in the stall next to Kali as she was being hand reared by the keepers. She was very attentive too, telling the keepers when Kali needed to be cared for.


Josie is a Bornean orangutan and was born on June 8, 2002 at the Kansas City Zoo. Her father died while she was very young. Rufus is a kind of adoptive father. Her and Kali have been increasingly getting along as she as gotten older. They will occasionally play together. Josie will even carry Kali around. One enrichment Josie enjoys is painting.


Photo: Bornean female Kalijon (Kali) is celebrating her 4th birthday today at the Kansas City Zoo!  Happy Birthday Kali!Photo Credit - Stacie Beckett

Credit goes to Stacie Beckett of the Kansas City Zoo

Kali is the latest star of the orangutan clan at the KCZ. She was born on April 24, 2009 at the KCZ to TK and Berani. TK, though, didn’t want to raise Kali, so the keepers had to step in. The keepers and volunteers took turns feeding, playing, and watching out for Kali. After about 5 months, Kali was handed over to Jill to care for. Jill took to her right away. Kali is enthusiastic and like to interact with guests, at least she did with me. Check out the video at She was tapping on  the glass and making silly faces.


Photo: Our Earth Day birthday wish today goes out to Bornean female TK at the Kansas City Zoo.  Happy 28th Birthday TK!Photo Credit - Laura Laverick

Credit: Laura Laverick of the Kansas City Zoo. 2013.

TK is a Bornean orangutan who was born on April 22, 1985 at the Omaha Zoo. TK is Berani’s partner. She is also Kali’s biological mother. However TK couldn’t master the skill of holding Kali near her nipple so she could nurse. The keepers tried as soon as they received TK to train her these motherly skills. TK has mothered two previous orangutans, but those too had to be hand reared. She was a loving mother, but never nursed the babies. She would instead hold them on her head. Her and Berani bonded instantly when put together in 2008. This last birthday she enjoyed crepe paper, color books, chalk, and sleep. Who doesn’t deserve rest and relaxation on their birthday?


Berani is a Bornean orangutan who was born on June 27, 1999 at the Lowry Park Zoo. He was transferred to the KCZ in 2008 to breed with TK. Him and TK are very fond of each other. Berani is very fond of enrichment, especially yummy treats.

Orangutans Are Like Birds

Orangutans are like birds. Not in the literal sense. They don’t lay eggs, have beaks, or feathers. However they do make nests, and not once a season to make babies. They make a different nest every night. Now that sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? I am too lazy to make my bed everyday let alone make a new bed every day. Well scientists at the University of Manchester have been monitoring orangutans in the wild for the last year and discovered orangutans put a lot of thought and effort into their nightly beds.

“We found that the orangutans chose strong, rigid tree branches for the structural parts of the nests that supported their weight, and weaker, more flexible branches for the nest’s linings, suggesting that the apes’ choice of branch for different parts of the nests was dictated by the branches’ diameter and rigidity,” said Dr Ennos, based in the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences. He also said, “[The] branches chosen for the nests’ structural framework were fractured differently from those chosen for the lining: whereas structural branches were broken halfway across, leaving them attached, branches used for lining were completely severed, suggesting that orangutans might use knowledge of the different ways in which branches break to build strong and comfortable nests.”

So not only do the orangutans make new beds every night, they also selectively choose each branch and calculate the best position for it. Furthermore, the smaller branches are woven to make soft places to lie down. These great apes are smarter than were ever thought before, and why they always amaze me.

Orangutans carefully select branches to use in their nests, just like birds do. Who knows? Orangutans may start laying eggs and sprouting wings, but that may be further down the evolutionary line.Image

Credit to Rhett A. Butler and


Manchester University (2012, April 17). Orangutans smarter than previously thought: Orangutan nest building highly sophisticated. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 26, 2012, from­ /releases/2012/04/120417080346.htm

Sumatran Orangutans Could Be Gone Sooner than Later

An unfortunate realization has occurred: Sumatran orangutans could be gone by the end of 2012. A fire set by palm oil plantations in the Tripa park has killed 90+ orangutans. A THIRD of the population in the Tripa Park. There are only a few thousand of these great apes left and everyone of them is needed. The plantations were given the go ahead by the court to clear  their remaining land to grow more trees, but the plantation is in the largest habitat for orangutans. Many activists in Indonesia are trying to fight the clearing of more land from this habitat, but who knows if they will win. To read more check out the below articles.

Why Are Orangutans so Vulnerable?

Genetic diversity is essential for the survival of any species. The more variation in the DNA, the more adaptable the species is to changes in the environment. If their diet and lifestyle are versatile, then the animal can move to different habitats and settle down if their main habitat is destroyed. Greater genetic diversity also means a stronger immune system and therefore decreases the chances of illnesses or any genetic diseases. Large populations tend to have a greater number of genes than smaller populations, but it’s not absolute. This makes it harder to conserve endangered animals. Once the population decreases, the genetic diversity lessens. Then if the populations increase, the genetic diversity will stay the same, which still puts the population at risk of extinction. It is therefore important to prevent population loss to begin with (Pascal, M. 2010).

There are a couple of characteristics of orangutans that makes them susceptible to extinction. Orangutans are endemic to Indonesia and Malaysia, which means there are no populations elsewhere. Since these two countries are islands, orangutans are also not able to spread out to other countries. Their genetic variability isn’t as great as a genus that has many species spread out over a lot of countries. Their weight also puts them at risk. As older trees are chopped down for lumber or palm oil plantations, younger trees are left behind. The weaker branches cannot hold the large, adult male. The males are forced to walk along the ground, which puts them at risk of predation (Levine, S. 2000).

Another aspect that put orangutans at risk is their low reproduction rates. Females only have one infant at a time, and only every eight to ten years. When populations are wiped out, it takes many years for the numbers to bounce back. These mothers also need a lot of land to raise their young. Even though female orangutans share home ranges, male orangutans are very protective of their territory. Great apes need a lot of land to survive. As the rainforests are chopped down, orangutans are pushed together and the number of fights increases (Caldecott, J., & Miles, L. (2005).

Besides the orangutans, the trees that make up their diet is at risk. As land is cleared for palm oil plantations, the vegetation populations are severely reduced. In place of these trees, African oil palm is planted. As a result, the biodiversity of the vegetation is diminishing. Although the orangutans can utilize African oil palm in their diet, the lands are heavily protected and intruding orangutans are generally shot (Nellemann, C. 2007).

Caldecott, J., & Miles, L. (2005). World Atlas of Great Apes and Their Conservation. London:   University of California Press.

Levine, S. (2000). The Orangutan. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc.

Nellemann, C., Miles, L., Kaltenborn, B. P., Virtue, M., and Ahlenius, H. (Eds). (2007). The last stand of the orangutan – State of emergency: Illegal logging, fire and palm oil in Indonesia’s national parks. United Nations Environment. Programme, GRID-Arendal, Norway,      Retrieved 11 March, 2012 from

Pascal, M., Guyader, H. & Simberloff, D. (2010). Biological invasions and the conservation of biodiversity. Revue Scientifique et Technique, 29 (2), 387-403.