Orangutans Can ‘Talk’ About the Past

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Orangutans Can ‘Talk’ About the Past

A loud kiss-squeak is a signal from orangutans to warn others of a possible danger / Photo by Getty Images


One of the greatest animal mysteries in the animal kingdom that most scientists want to discover is whether or not they experience time as people do. Are they aware of the past, present, and future at all? With that, the researchers are bound to look for possible clues to their temporal perspective in behaviors.


Animals and Their Alarm Calls

The ability to issue alerts is one of the common features in animal communication. Alarm calls are able to alert group members to the presence of a predator and even provide information on the species and location of the predator. These alerts are in real time while there is a danger. Many animals give the alarm when a predator approaches, but the orangutans prefer to wait until the threat ends to inform the people around them.

Orangutans let out a loud ‘kiss-squeak” once they spot a predator. This sound signals the tigers and other potential enemies that orangutans are aware of the possible danger. At the same time, this serves as a warning to other orangutans that there is a danger nearby. But, Science Mag has said in their website that researchers report having heard orangutans making this call long after predators have passed. This is the first evidence that primates other than humans can “talk” about the past.

There are a lot of mammals and birds that have their own alarm calls that include information on the type and size of a predator, its location and distance, and what level of danger it poses and until now, the researchers never heard of such wild animals announcing the danger after the act.


The Orangutan Way of Protection

According to Forbes, Adriano Lameira, a primatologist at St Andrew's, carried out a study in the Ketambe jungle in Sumatra where the primates have been observed for nearly 40 years. They draped a tiger-striped, spotted, or plain sheet walked on all fours along the forest floor underneath lone female orangutans that is sitting in trees that are 5 to 20 meters in height.

Once the artificial predator was spotted, they pause for two minutes before moving out of sight. Lamiera and other scientists expected the orangutans to sound an alarm but it didn’t. Science Mag reports that the very first female they tested, an older mother with a 9-year-old youngster, did not make a sound and was completely quiet. According to Lamiera “She stopped what she was doing, grabbed her infant, defecated, and started slowly climbing higher in the tree.” After waiting for 20 minutes, the female orangutan finally did it and it was not just one alarm. They primate raised a prolonged alarm for more than an hour.

There were 24 total trials made and 12 of those, shows that the mother would wait an average of seven minutes before vocalizing. These delays are not just spotted on lone orangutan but were also observed when mother orangutans sensed their child was in danger.

 Based on Mother Nature Network, Lameira and his team suggest in their study that was published in Science Advances, that the delay in calling attention to danger isn't because the females are scared; instead, waiting is both a method of protecting the offspring and teaching it at the same time.

Lamiera suggests that the decision to call or not to call may be related to the perceived danger to others, along with the need to aggravate the matter. Vocalizing in the presence of a predator is risky because it can expose the location of the orangutan and its child, putting the latter at a particular risk. Therefore, the delay could be a security maneuver in which it is important to warn others and, above all, educate the child about the danger that has just occurred. In fact, it seems that mothers with younger and less experienced offspring are more likely to have a delayed alarm call than mothers with older children.

According to Forbes, this capacity has not been observed in other primates such as lemurs, monkeys and great apes that are known to raise an alarm once they spot a predator. 

By not responding to a stimulus is a sign of intelligence based from Lamiera. It is a talent that accompanies other abilities found in apes, such as long-term memory, intentional communication and precise control of the laryngeal muscles, all of which have led to language development. 

Lamiera and his colleague Josep Call explain in their paper published in Science Advances that these new findings point to a form of high-order understanding in orangutans.

Based on them, “Postponing behavior in time and space inherently expresses a role of high cognitive processing of the stimulus and general intelligence.” Moreover, they both say that their findings may suggest that displaced reference in language is likely to have originally piggybacked on akin behaviors in an ancestral hominid.  This could mean that the ability of humans to conceptualize the past may have come from a common ancestor with orangutans.


Orangutan mothers practice the act of waiting as a method to protect their offspring and teaching them at the same time before giving out a signal / Photo by Flickr




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