Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Evidence for orangutan culture

03.01.2003


An international collaboration of primatologists has gleaned evidence from decades of observations of orangutans that the apes show behaviors that are culturally based.




The scientists’ findings push back the origins of culturally transmitted behavior to 14 million years ago, when orangutans first evolved from their more primitive primate ancestors. Previous evidence for cultural transmission in chimpanzees suggested an origin of cultural traits 7 million years ago.

The researchers also warn that illegal logging and other habitat destruction in the forests of Sumatra and Borneo could not only threaten further research into the earliest origins of culture, but continue the dangerous decline in orangutan populations.


In an article in the Jan. 3, 2003, Science, the scientists presented evidence for cultural transmission of 24 behaviors. These include:

  • using leaves as protective gloves or napkins;
  • using sticks to poke into tree holes to obtain insects, to extract seeds from fruit or to scratch body parts;
  • using leafy branches to swat insects or gather water;
  • "snag-riding," the orangutan equivalent of a sport in which the animals ride falling dead trees, grabbing vegetation before the tree hits the ground;
  • emitting sounds such as "raspberries," or "kiss-squeaks," in which leaves or hands are used to amplify the sound;
  • building sun covers for nests or, during rain, bunk nests above the nests used for resting.

According to first author Carel van Schaik of Duke University, the impetus to look for cultural transmission among orangutans arose from earlier findings that orangutans use tools. In particular, van Schaik and his colleagues had discovered that groups of orangutans in Sumatra use sticks to pry out fat-rich seeds from a fruit called neesia, thereby avoiding the stinging hairs that surround the seeds.

Significantly, such tool use was present only among some groups, even when the habitat appeared to be the same, the researchers found. For instance, they found that while orangutans on one side of a barrier river used tools on the fruit, those on the other did not. Nevertheless, said van Schaik, a professor of biological anthropology and anatomy, the popular perception of orangutans did not suggest that they would show cultural transmission.

"Culture requires more than just a mother-infant bond, but also extensive social contact, and orangutans are at the low end of the sociability spectrum," said van Schaik. To explore the possibility of culture in orangutans, The Leakey Foundation sponsored in February 2002 a gathering of orangutan researchers from throughout the world to correlate their data.

Besides van Schaik, co-authors included Marc Ancrenaz of the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, Gwendolyn Borgen of Duke, Birute Galdikas of Simon Fraser University and Orangutan Foundation International, Cheryl Knott of Harvard University, Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan conservation Programme, Akira Suzuki of Kyoto University, Sri Suci Utami of Universitas International in Jararta, Indonesia, and Michelle Merrill of Duke.

"It was an open-ended exercise, in which we looked at each other’s videos and other data from our own observation sites," said van Schaik. "We looked for behaviors that were different among the different groups.

"While we were by no means certain that we would come up with any evidence for cultural variability, we ultimately identified 24 behaviors that likely represent cultural variants. Frankly, we were all rather giddy at the end, when we realized what had come out of our data."

According to van Schaik, the researchers are acutely aware that such differences might be nothing more than the animals’ adaptation to varying habitats, without social transmission.

"However, we saw that habitat did not have a significant impact on similarity of these behaviors," said van Schaik. "And our confidence that we were seeing cultural transmission was increased by analyses showing that proximate sites showed more behavioral similarity than distant sites. This finding strongly suggested that we were observing a process of innovation and cultural diffusion. "Also, we found the biggest behavioral repertoires within sites that showed the most social contact, thus giving the animals the greatest opportunity to learn from one another," he said. According to van Schaik, the discovery of cultural transmission in orangutans has implications for understanding the process in humans.

"First of all, this finding emphasizes that human culture didn’t just arise de novo, but reaches far back in evolutionary time," he said. "The findings in chimpanzees meant that culture originated at least seven million years ago, and the discovery in orangutans pushes its origins back to about 14 million years.

"All these findings suggest that the first ancestral man-apes must have had a pretty solid evolutionary cultural foundation on which to build," said van Schaik.

Van Schaik and his colleagues distinguish four kinds of culture -- labels, signals, skills and symbols -- of which the Great Apes have shown the first three. Human culture is distinguished by far more sophisticated development of all four, he said. However, observations of chimpanzees and orangutans have revealed hints of symbol use, and further study might reveal clearer evidence of symbols, said van Schaik.

Van Schaik warned that political unrest and destruction of orangutan habitat could prevent such studies. "Some people have asked us ’Haven’t you learned enough by studying these animals for some 30 years?’" said van Schaik. "And it is obvious from these findings that we haven’t. Some of the areas included in this study have already been lost to illegal logging. And even if somehow you could restore the forest and the animals, just as with human cultures, once a culture is gone, it’s gone."

Dennis Meredith | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.duke.edu/

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Magic number colloidal clusters
13.12.2018 | Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

nachricht Record levels of mercury released by thawing permafrost in Canadian Arctic
13.12.2018 | University of Alberta

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: An energy-efficient way to stay warm: Sew high-tech heating patches to your clothes

Personal patches could reduce energy waste in buildings, Rutgers-led study says

What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes - while significantly reducing your...

Im Focus: Lethal combination: Drug cocktail turns off the juice to cancer cells

A widely used diabetes medication combined with an antihypertensive drug specifically inhibits tumor growth – this was discovered by researchers from the University of Basel’s Biozentrum two years ago. In a follow-up study, recently published in “Cell Reports”, the scientists report that this drug cocktail induces cancer cell death by switching off their energy supply.

The widely used anti-diabetes drug metformin not only reduces blood sugar but also has an anti-cancer effect. However, the metformin dose commonly used in the...

Im Focus: New Foldable Drone Flies through Narrow Holes in Rescue Missions

A research team from the University of Zurich has developed a new drone that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes. This is particularly useful when searching for victims of natural disasters.

Inspecting a damaged building after an earthquake or during a fire is exactly the kind of job that human rescuers would like drones to do for them. A flying...

Im Focus: Topological material switched off and on for the first time

Key advance for future topological transistors

Over the last decade, there has been much excitement about the discovery, recognised by the Nobel Prize in Physics only two years ago, that there are two types...

Im Focus: Researchers develop method to transfer entire 2D circuits to any smooth surface

What if a sensor sensing a thing could be part of the thing itself? Rice University engineers believe they have a two-dimensional solution to do just that.

Rice engineers led by materials scientists Pulickel Ajayan and Jun Lou have developed a method to make atom-flat sensors that seamlessly integrate with devices...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

ICTM Conference 2019: Digitization emerges as an engineering trend for turbomachinery construction

12.12.2018 | Event News

New Plastics Economy Investor Forum - Meeting Point for Innovations

10.12.2018 | Event News

EGU 2019 meeting: Media registration now open

06.12.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Magic number colloidal clusters

13.12.2018 | Life Sciences

UNLV study unlocks clues to how planets form

13.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Live from the ocean research vessel Atlantis

13.12.2018 | Earth Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>