4 Messages a Pantomiming Orangutan Might Be Trying to Convey

By Joseph Calamia | August 11, 2010 5:32 pm

orangutanStop patting yourself on the back. You’re not so special. Orangutans, a new study suggests, also use complex gestures or pantomimes to communicate.

Looking through twenty years worth of orangutan observations, researchers believe they have found 18  examples of pantomimes. The study, which appeared today in Biology Letters, supports the claim that we’re not unique when it comes to abstract communication and lends credence to other observations of great ape gesturing, according to lead researcher Anne Russon.

[Orangutans and chimpanzees were already known] to throw an object when angry, for example. But that is a far cry from displaying actions that are intentionally symbolic and referential–the behaviour known as pantomiming. “Pantomime is considered uniquely human,” says Anne Russon from York University in Toronto, Canada. “It is based on imitation, recreating behaviours you have seen somewhere else, which can be considered complex and beyond the grasp of most non-human species.” [New Scientist]

Of the eighteen observed orangutan pantomimes, four took place between orangutans and 14 between a human and an orangutan. If you ever find yourself in the Indonesian jungles, here are some examples of messages that you might expect:


Orangutans can lie, it appears, pretending to engage in one activity while plotting another.

In some recordings, orangutans used gestures to distract or mislead others. One animal indicated to researchers that it wanted a haircut, as a ruse to divert their attention while it stole something, according to the study. [The Guardian]


Along that line, orangutans sometimes appeared to feign helplessness, as seen in this video in which a skilled coconut-opening orangutan pretends to be unable so that a human will do it for her.

The researchers jokingly call this sort of behavior “poor me,” referring to how the crafty apes feign weakness to get others to help. When Siti “failed,” she handed the coconut to a human staff member, along with the stick. She then pretended to use the stick as a machete, reenacting how she’d seen this person opening coconuts with machetes. He got the picture and opened the coconut with a machete while Siti impatiently waited with arms folded. [Discovery News]


Researchers believe that that the orangutans can also pantomime stories to reminisce. They cite a case of an orangutan with a foot injury named Kikan. A week after a conservationist pulled a small stone from the animal’s foot and used latex from a fig leaf to seal the wound, Kikan hugged the conservationist and re-enacted the foot first-aid. Says Russon:

“She’s not asking for anything, which is the most common aim observed of great ape communication, but appears simply to be sharing a memory with the person who helped her when she hurt her foot. It shows her understanding of how events had unfolded in a particular situation, which was very complex.” [BBC]

Good Hygiene

The orangutans observed in this exploratory study had once been in captivity but were then released into the forest. One orangutan seemed to remember face-scrubbings at a rehabilitation facility on Borneo.

[Russon says] she did know what was going on when a young male called Cecep plopped down in front of her and handed her a leaf. “I played dumb,” she remembers. “He waited a respectable few seconds, then–all the while looking me in the eye–he took back the leaf, rubbed it on his own forehead….” Again he handed it to her. “Then I did as I was told,” she says, and wiped away the dirt. [Science News]

Related content:
80beats: An Active Orangutan Burns Fewer Calories Than a Lazy Human
80beats: Study: Orangutans Play Leaf Instruments to Fool Predators
80beats: Syncopated Rhythm Makes Orangutans Masterful Swingers
80beats: Happy News: New Population of Endangered Orangutans Found in Borneo
80beats: Orangutans Are Threatened With Extinction as Habitat Shrinks

Image: Wikimedia / Malene Thyssen

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World
  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    The expression sort of reminds me of old school Calvin and Hobbes

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Our ignorance and arrogance towards the intelligence of other sentient species is a holdover from the religious dominance of the past however many thousands of years of human existence where we assumed we were the chosen ones of god because we dominated the landscape, and that all others were created to be subservient to us and provide us with sustenance.

    I’m glad to see that false dichotomy being shattered left and right.

  • Glenn

    “It is based on imitation, recreating behaviours you have seen somewhere else, which can be considered complex and beyond the grasp of most non-human species”
    Definition of “aping”:: .
    n. Aping.] To mimic, as an ape imitates human actions; to imitate or follow servilely or

  • Kai

    Less than one case per year. What are the odds of these things happening by chance? The odds are that they just happen when humans interact with animals that simply behave the way they do. Not to mention the fact that the researchers interferred with the situation. This makes it hard to conclude anything from this study with certainty.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar