What makes an orangutan special?
So many things are amazing about our forest friends.
Orangutans are born with an ability to reason and think. This large, gentle red ape is one of humankind’s closest relatives, sharing nearly 97% of the same DNA. Indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia call this ape “orang hutan” literally translating into English as “person of the forest.”
In times past orangutans were not killed because the indignenous peoples felt the orangutan was simply a person hiding in the trees, trying to avoid having to go to work or become a slave.
Orangutans are unique in the ape world. Of the four kinds of great apes – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans – only the orangutan comes from Asia; the others all come from Africa. There are two separate species of orangutan – the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus).
Orangutans are the only primarily arboreal great ape and are actually the largest tree living mammal in the world. The other great apes do climb, travel and build sleeping nests in trees, but they are considered semi-terrestrial, spending a considerable portion of their lives on the ground. The orangutan’s hair color, orange-reddish brown, is also unique in the ape world.
Orangutans have remarkable abilities for traveling through the forest canopy. They make their homes in these trees, find their food there, and build tree nests each night out of leaves and branches. This is where they live and sleep – sometimes as much as 120 feet above the ground. Orangutans usually have little need to come down from the trees, as they are uniquely and very well adapted for their arboreal lifestyle.
Almost all of the food they eat grows in the treetops and the frequent rains fill the leaves thus supplying their drinking water. When water is difficult to get, they chew leaves to make a sponge to soak up water in tree cavities. When it rains very hard the orangutan makes an umbrella for himself out of big leaves. Many people are familiar with the studies that have shown chimpanzees using tools, such as termite-fishing sticks. Recent studies show that some populations of orangutans also fashion tools to aid in the difficult task of foraging for food.
Some might say orangutans have four hands instead of two hands and two feet. This makes them graceful and agile while climbing through the trees but it makes walking on the ground somewhat slow and awkward. That is why the orangutan is at a great disadvantage on the ground, and why the orangutan rarely comes down from the treetops. Their food is there, their home is there and they are safer there.
An orangutan’s lifespan is about 35-40 years in the wild, and sometimes into the 50’s in captivity. They reach puberty at about 8 years of age, but a female isn’t ready for her own baby until she’s in her teens.
The orangutan has the longest childhood dependence on the mother of any animal in the world, because there is so much for a young orangutan to learn in order to survive. The babies nurse until they are about six years of age. The young males may stay close by their mothers for a few more years but the females may stay until they are into their teens, allowing them to observe mothering skills as they watch their younger sibling being raised by the mother. Orangutan females only give birth about once every 8 years – the longest time between births of any mammal on earth. (This results in only 4 to 5 babies in her lifetime.) This is why orangutan populations are very slow to recover from disturbance.
Food is often scarce in the rain forest and that is why the orangutan is a semi-solitary creature. In times of great abundance of food, orangutans may use the opportunity to socialize and gather in small groups.
Their diet is made up of bark, leaves, flowers, a variety of insects, and most importantly, over 300 kinds of fruit. The mothers must teach the babies what food to eat, where to find that food, in which trees and during which seasons. It is thought that the orangutan must have a very detailed map of the forest in her mind, and detailed knowledge of the fruiting cycles of many species of trees. (This prevents wasting valuable energy searching for fruit trees randomly, and traveling to a certain fruiting tree whose fruits will not ripen for some time). The babies must eventually know hundreds of species of plants and trees, which ones are edible, and how to process them; some are very difficult to eat because they are protected by sharp spines and shells.
The throat sac is used to make a very notable and recognizable call that echoes through the forest. This is called the “Long Call” and is used to locate and advertise their presence to females or warn other males away.
Males often weigh over 200 pounds, where females are 1/3 to 1/2 his size. The males generally remain solitary until they encounter a female who is receptive to mating. They will stay with the female for several days to ensure a successful mating but will soon resume their solitary life. Due to their large size, males will more often travel on the ground than females.
Orangutans are one of the most critically endangered of the great apes, due to poaching and habitat loss from deforestation and the palm oil plantations that are devastating Indonesia in 2016. This is a crucial time for orangutans. The Orangutan Conservancy believes there are only about 40,000 orangutans remaining in Borneo and Sumatra. Shockingly, the number was about 60,000 as recent as a decade ago. Read about the threats to orangutans and how you can help OC to protect this very special animal now and in the future.