Which creature is the largest known tree dwelling mammal, has a mother-child relationship like no other, and can memorize pathways through an entire forest?
Ape-like but Not Quite
Although orangutans are considered one of the four great apes, alongside gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees, they have characteristics that set them apart from these other species. First of all, they are the only great ape originating from Asia (the rest reside in Africa). Secondly, they are the only great ape to spend most of their time in tree canopies.
All apes enjoy climbing and building nests amongst the trees, but orangutans spend much more time high above the ground, about 80% of it. This lifestyle also categorizes orangutans as the largest tree-living (and loving) mammal. Their large toes easily grasp branches and their flexible hip joints allow them to move freely throughout the canopy. Tarzan would be so proud!
Orangutan mothers care for their babies until they reach 6 or 7 years old, and stay close by for the first 10 years of life. This is one of the longest durations of nursing offspring in the animal kingdom. Throughout these years, orangutan mothers will create a nest every night for her and her young – rounding out to more than 30,000 nests in one lifetime! They form these nests by manipulating branches and foliage, and all of this hard work is done alone. Male orangutans do not help with the child-rearing process – they tend to leave after the mating is complete.
To navigate the forest and teach their young how to do the same, orangutan moms need to memorize a map of the general region. They even memorize specific trees and their fruiting cycles to know which season to visit them. Without these skills, orangutans would waste vast amounts of energy swinging through forest branches in search of food.
Their intelligence not only gets them to where they need to be and when, but it comes in handy when recalling what to do once they arrive at a certain tree. Not all foods are eaten the same way, as some plants carry spines, some fruits come with tough shells, and so on. Therefore, youngsters are memorizing which plant and tree is which, and how to safely consume the food in question.
Check out this short video on one orangutan mother and daughter pair:
How are human activities impacting orangutans?
Sadly, these magnificent creatures are under many threats, and they are one of the most endangered mammals. Habitat loss has decreased their food and housing availability. The biggest reason for habitat loss is palm oil plantations as these require an extensive amount of deforestation. With high demand for this product, these plantations continue to expand their reach. Orangutans are also threatened by poaching for tourist souvenirs and the illegal pet trade.
Orangutan moms continue to be as dedicated as ever during these tough times. They only give birth about once every 8 years, to one baby at a time, resulting in 4 to 5 babies throughout one lifetime. Every orangutan mother is special and irreplaceable. Her impeccable knowledge of the forest and commitment to her babies are what bring us hope that one day orangutans will once again grace the forests of Asia in their former glory.
By Tania Roa