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The orangutans (or orangutangs) are one of two endangered species of great apes (the other being the gorilla). Known for their intelligence, they live in trees and are the largest living arboreal animal. They have longer arms than other great apes, and their hair is typically reddish-brown, instead of the brown or black hair typical of other great apes. Native to Indonesiamarker and Malaysiamarker, they are currently found only in rainforests on the islands of Borneomarker and Sumatramarker, though fossils have been found in Javamarker, the Thai-Malay Peninsula, Vietnammarker and Chinamarker. There are only two surviving species in the genus Pongo: the Bornean Pongo pygmaeus and the critically endangered Sumatranmarker Pongo abelii. The subfamily Ponginae includes the extinct genera Gigantopithecus and Sivapithecus.

Ecology and appearance

Adult female orangutan
Size relative to a 6 foot (1.8 m) man
An orangutan's standing height averages from and weighs between . Males can weigh up to or more. Orangutan hands are similar to humans hands; they have four long fingers and an opposable thumb. Their feet have four long toes and an opposable big toe. Orangutans can grasp things with both their hands and their feet. The largest males have an arm span of about .

Orangutans have a large, bulky body, a thick neck, very long, strong arms, short, bowed legs, and no tail. They are mostly covered with long reddish-brown hair, although this differs between the species: Sumatran Orangutans have a more sparse and lighter coloured coat.

The orangutan has a large head with a prominent mouth area. Adult males have large cheek flaps (which get larger as the ape ages) that show their dominance to other males and their readiness to mate to other females. The age of maturity for females is approximately 12 years. Orangutans may live for about 50 years in the wild. However, thousands of orangutans don't reach adulthood due to human disruption. Orangutans are killed for food while others are killed because of disruption in people's property. Mother orangutans are killed so their infants can be sold as pets. Many of the infants die without the help of their mother.

Orangutans are the most arboreal of the great apes, spending nearly all of their time in the trees. Every night they fashion sleeping nests from branches and foliage. They are more solitary than other apes; males and females generally come together only to mate. Mothers stay with their babies for six or seven years. There is significant sexual dimorphism: females can grow to around 2 in or 127 cm and weigh around while flanged adult males can reach 5 ft 9 in or 175 cm in height and weigh over .

The arms of orangutans are twice as long as their legs. Much of the arm's length has to do with the length of the radius and the ulna rather than the humerus. Their fingers and toes are curved, allowing them to better grip onto branches. Orangutans have less restriction in the movements of their legs than humans and other primates, due to the lack of a hip joint ligament which keeps the femur held into the pelvis. Unlike gorillas and chimpanzees, orangutans are not true knuckle-walkers, and are instead fist-walkers.


Flanged adult male
Fruit makes up 65–90 percent of the orangutan diet. Fruits with sugary or fatty pulp are favored. Ficus fruits are commonly eaten, because they are easy to harvest and digest. Lowland Dipterocarp forests are preferred by orangutans because of their plentiful fruit; the same forests provide excellent timber for the logging industry and good soil conditions for palm oil plantations. Bornean orangutans consume at least 317 different food items that include: young leaves, shoots, bark, insects, honey, and bird eggs.

Orangutans are opportunistic foragers, and their diets vary markedly from month to month. Bark is eaten as a last resort in times of food scarcity; fruits are always more popular

Orangutans are thought to be the sole fruit disperser for some plant species including the climber species Strychnos ignatii which contains the toxic alkaloid strychnine. It does not appear to have any effect on orangutans except for excessive saliva production.

Geophagy, the practice of eating soil or rock, has been observed in orangutans. There are three main reasons for this dietary behavior; for the addition of minerals nutrients to their diet; for the ingestion of clay minerals that can absorb toxic substances; or to treat a disorder such as diarrhea.

Orangutans use plants of the genus Commelina as an anti-inflammatory balm.

Behavior and language

Like the other great apes, orangutans are remarkably intelligent. Although tool use among chimpanzees was documented by Jane Goodall in the 1960s, it was not until the mid-1990s that one population of orangutans was found to use feeding tools regularly. A 2003 paper in the journal Science described the evidence for distinct orangutan cultures.

According to research psychologist Robert Deaner and his colleagues, orangutans are the world's most intelligent animal other than humans, with higher learning and problem solving ability than chimpanzees, which were previously considered to have greater abilities. A study of orangutans by Carel van Schaik, a Dutch primatologist at Duke Universitymarker, found them capable of tasks well beyond chimpanzees’ abilities — such as using leaves to make rain hats and leakproof roofs over their sleeping nests. He also found that, in some food-rich areas, the creatures had developed a complex culture in which adults would teach youngsters how to make tools and find food.

A two-week old orangutan
A two year study of orangutan symbolic capability was conducted from 1973-1975 by Gary L. Shapiro with Aazk, a juvenile female orangutan at the Fresno City Zoo (now Chaffee Zoo) in Fresno, California. The study employed the techniques of David Premack who used plastic tokens to teach the chimpanzee, Sarah, linguistic skills. Shapiro continued to examine the linguistic and learning abilities of ex-captive orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Parkmarker, in Indonesian Borneo, between 1978 and 1980. During that time, Shapiro instructed ex-captive orangutans in the acquisition and use of signs following the techniques of R. Allen and Beatrix Gardner who taught the chimpanzee, Washoe, in the late-1960s. In the only signing study ever conducted in a great ape's natural environment, Shapiro home-reared Princess, a juvenile female who learned nearly 40 signs (according to the criteria of sign acquisition used by Francine Patterson with Koko, the gorilla) and trained Rinnie, a free-ranging adult female orangutan who learned nearly 30 signs over a two year period. For his dissertationstudy, Shapiro examined the factors influencing sign learning by four juvenile orangutans over a 15-month period.

The first orangutan language study program, directed by Dr. Francine Neago, was listed by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1988. The Orangutan language project at the Smithsonian National Zoomarker in Washington, D.C.marker, uses a computer system originally developed at UCLAmarker by Neago in conjunction with IBM.

Zoo Atlanta has a touch screen computer where their two Sumatran Orangutans play games. Scientists hope that the data they collect from this will help researchers learn about socializing patterns, such as whether they mimic others or learn behavior from trial and error, and hope the data can point to new conservation strategies.

A 2008 study of two orangutans at the Leipzig Zoomarker showed that orangutans are the first non-human species documented to use 'calculated reciprocity' which involves weighing the costs and benefits of gift exchanges and keeping track of these over time.

Although orangutans are generally passive, aggression toward other orangutans is very common; they are solitary animals and can be fiercely territorial. Immature males will try to mate with any female, and may succeed in forcibly copulating with her if she is also immature and not strong enough to fend him off. Mature females easily fend off their immature suitors, preferring to mate with a mature male.

Orangutans do not swim. At least one population at a conservation refuge on Kaja island in Borneo have been photographed wading in deep water.

Orangutans, along with Chimpanzees, gorillas, and other apes, have even shown laughter-like vocalizations in response to physical contact, such as wrestling, play chasing, or tickling.


Pongo pygmaeus
The populations on the two islands were classified as subspecies until recently, when they were elevated to full specific level, and the three distinct populations on Borneo were elevated to subspecies. The population currently listed as P. p. wurmbii may be closer to the Sumatran Orangutan than the Bornean Orangutan. If confirmed, abelii would be a subspecies of P. wurmbii (Tiedeman, 1808). Regardless, the type locality of pygmaeus has not been established beyond doubts, and may be from the population currently listed as wurmbii (in which case wurmbii would be a junior synonym of pygmaeus, while one of the names currently considered a junior synonym of pygmaeus would take precedence for the northwest Bornean taxon). To further confuse, the name morio, as well as various junior synonyms that have been suggested, have been considered likely to all be junior synonyms of the population listed as pygmaeus in the above, thus leaving the east Bornean populations unnamed.

In addition, a fossil species, P. hooijeri, is known from Vietnam, and multiple fossil subspecies have been described from several parts of southeastern Asia. It is unclear if these belong to P. pygmaeus or P. abeli or, in fact, represent distinct species.

Conservation status

The Sumatran species is critically endangered and the Bornean species of orangutans is endangered according to the IUCN Red List of mammals, and both are listed on Appendix I of CITES.The total number of Bornean orangutans is estimated to be less than 14 percent of what it was in the recent past (from around 10,000 years ago until the middle of the twentieth century) and this sharp decline has occurred mostly over the past few decades due to human activities and development. Species distribution is now highly patchy throughout Borneo: it is apparently absent or uncommon in the south-east of the island, as well as in the forests between the Rejang River in central Sarawakmarker and the Padas River in western Sabahmarker (including the Sultanate of Bruneimarker). The largest remaining population is found in the forest around the Sabangau Rivermarker, but this environment is at risk. A similar development have been observed for the Sumatran orangutans.
The most recent estimate for the Sumatran Orangutan is around 7,300 individuals in the wild while the Bornean Orangutan population is estimated at between 45,000 and 69,000. These estimates were obtained between 2000 and 2003. Since recent trends are steeply down in most places due to logging and burning, it is forecast that the current numbers are below these figures.
Orangutan habitat destruction due to logging, mining and forest fires, as well as fragmentation by roads, has been increasing rapidly in the last decade. A major factor in that period of time has been the conversion of vast areas of tropical forest to oil palm plantations in response to international demand (the palm oil is used for cooking, cosmetics, mechanics, and more recently as source of biodiesel). Some UN scientists believe that these plantations could lead to irreparable damage to orangutan habitat by the year 2012. Some of this activity is illegal, occurring in national parks that are officially off limits to loggers, miners and plantation development. There is also a major problem with hunting and illegal pet trade. In early 2004 about 100 individuals of Bornean origin were confiscated in Thailandmarker and 50 of them were returned to Kalimantan in 2006. Several hundred Bornean orangutan orphans who were confiscated by local authorities have been entrusted to different orphanages in both Malaysia and Indonesia. They are in the process of being rehabilitated into the wild.

Major conservation centres in Indonesia include those at Tanjung Puting National Park and Sebangau National Parkmarker in Central Kalimantan, Kutai in East Kalimantanmarker, Gunung Palung National Parkmarker in West Kalimantanmarker, and Bukit Lawang in the Gunung Leuser National Parkmarker on the border of Acehmarker and North Sumatramarker. In Malaysia, conservation areas include Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Sarawakmarker and Matang Wildlife Centre also in Sarawakmarker, and the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuarymarker near Sandakanmarker in Sabahmarker.

See also


  1. Matt Walker Wild orangutans treat pain with natural anti-inflammatory New Scientist 28 July 2008.
  3. Dissertation.
  4. Humans aren’t alone in giving gifts.
  5. Swimming orangutans’ spearfishing exploits amaze the wildlife experts.
  6. Chimps, Other Apes Laugh Like People Discovery channel, Jennifer Viegas' interview with study project leader Marina Davila Ross }}
  7. Bradon-Jones, D., A. A. Eudey, T. Geissmann, C. P. Groves, D. J. Melnick, J. C. Morales, M. Shekelle, and C. B. Stewart. 2004. Asian primate classification. International Journal of Primatology. 23: 97-164.
  8. Density and population estimate of gibbons (Hylobates albibarbis) in the Sabangau catchment, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.
  9. The oil for ape scandal.

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