When Orangutans Go Global: The Art of Jungle Assimilation 101

Swinging into the echelons of Orangutan lifestyle, an international team of scientific masterminds has just unveiled how the apes level up their survival game when they roll into unfamiliar forests.

Imagine the Michelin-star chefs of the jungle; orangutans are nothing short of food connoisseurs. They don’t just gorge on any foliage; there’s an art to selecting and processing their meals. After hitching a ride on their mothers’ backs for the first few years, young orangutans jet-set to distant jungles. There, they face the conundrum – how to cultivate that refined palate in the new postcode? These tree-huggers have got it figured out: when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Julia Mörchen, an evolutionary aficionado from the Max Planck Institute and the University of Leipzig, breaks it down: “Here we show evidence that migrant orangutan males use observational social learning to learn new ecological knowledge from local individuals after dispersing to a new area,” and adds, “Our results suggest that migrant males not only learn where to find food and what to feed on from locals, but also continue to learn how to process these new foods.”

Let’s take a deep dive into the modus operandi of the Orangutan infiltration. They employ a suave tactic known as ‘peering’. We’re talking intense, unwavering eyeballing for a minimum of five seconds from up-close and personal (within two meters) at their unsuspecting mentors. This audacious technique involves mirroring head movements to show they’re invested. It’s like a primate TED Talk in real-time.

The stags typically embark on these daring escapades post-independence, while the ladies prefer to chill closer to their birthplace. The exact GPS co-ordinates of their travels remain a jungle secret, but Mörchen gives us a sneak peek, “What we don’t yet know is how far orangutan males disperse, or where they disperse to. But it’s possible to make informed guesses: genetic data and observations of orangutans crossing physical barriers such as rivers and mountains suggest long-distance dispersal, likely over tens of kilometers.”

Think of it as an ancestral legacy – this intellectual wandering across various habitats is likely hardwired into our ancient family tree. Being the jungle’s answer to a Swiss Army knife, these guys adapt on the fly. “This implies that during migration, males likely come across several habitat types and thus experience a variety of faunistic compositions, especially when crossing through habitats of different altitudes. Over evolutionary time, being able to quickly adapt to novel environments by attending to crucial information from locals, likely provided individuals with a survival advantage. As a result, this ability is likely ancestral in our hominin lineage, reaching back at least between 12 and 14 million years to the last common ancestor we share with orangutans.”

Feasting on a colossal 30-year data banquet, the authors analysed the peering tactics of 77 Sumatran orangutans and 75 Bornean counterparts. Dr Anja Widdig, co-senior author, uncorks the findings, “Our detailed analyses further showed that the migrant orangutan males in our study peered most frequently at food items that are difficult to process, or which are only rarely eaten by the locals: including foods that were only ever recorded to be eaten for a couple of minutes, throughout the whole study time.”

Co-senior author Dr Caroline Schuppli spills some dessert wisdom, “Interestingly, the peering rates of migrant males decreased after a couple of months in the new area, which implies that this is how long it takes them to learn about new foods.”

So, the jungle’s whisper is this: these primal pioneers are taking locavore to the next level. They’re embedding themselves in new communities and are audaciously adaptive. In the gastronomical realm of the rainforest, orangutans are not just eating – they’re dining with panache.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.