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.



Regina Phalange

Regina Phalange

The cheek pads that grow on adult males orangutans are called flanges. There are also a few other types of phalanges.


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.


Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo’s Orangutans

The Fort Wayne Zoo has three orangutans. The orangutan exhibit at the FWCZ is pretty innovative. It is modeled after the the rainforest, the orangutan’s natural habitat. The viewing window of the exhibit is placed vertically halfway on the front wall. Through it you can see lots of trees scattered around the exhibit. The floor is normally covered with water to discourage the orangutans from going down there. This is to encourage the natural behavior of orangutans spending the majority of their time in trees. The keepers place blankets and other materials in the exhibit so the orangutans can make nests to sleep on at night.


Credit: Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo:

Tengku is the only male at the FWCZ. He is a Sumatran orangutan who was born at Zoo Atlanta on July 3, 1986. He came to FWCZ in April of 1995. His favorite enrichment item is anything dealing with food. When I was at the zoo, I saw Tengku carrying around a blanket in the tree tops. Tengku had one baby with another Sumatran orangutan named Sayang. Tengku was the lucky one that got to pick the name of the baby. Presented with two options, Tengku used a paint brush to pick the name Dumadi. Sayang unfortunately died though soon after labor and Dumadi was transferred to Zoo Atlanta to be reared by a foster mother.


Credit: Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo:

Melati is a hybrid orangutan. She was born on November 19, 1984 at the Yerkeys Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. She moved to the FWCZ in April of 1995. Her favorite enrichment item is ice treats, especially on a hot day. 🙂 She is not on breeding recommendation because she is a hybrid. It is important for the conservation of a species to maintain genetic diversity by only breeding within a species.


Credit: Columbus Zoo: Katrina McCauley/Jane McEvoy:

Tara is the newest orangutan at the FWCZ. She was brought here from the Columbus Zoo to be a mate for Tengku. She is a Sumatran orangutan and was born at the Rio Grande Zoo on April 1, 1995. Her favorite enrichment item is not the PVC feeder, but the end cap. She likes to eat food from it and play with it. She is outgoing and playful.


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.