Tool use by a hot orangutan


courtesy of The Daily Mail


  1. Posted August 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Is it something she figured out herself or something a human behavior she’s imitating? My guess is the latter.

    • Patrick
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, but you could say the same thing about the way I wash myself. I didn’t figure it out from first principles either.

      • Grania
        Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        Yes, exactly. For us humans it’s learned behaviour too.

    • daveau
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      When I saw this on the local news yesterday, whatever site they were at said that it was something that a visitor had accidentally dropped, and presumably this was the first time she had seen it.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

        not buying that this would be the first time that particular orang has seen A towel or washcloth though.

        sure looks like mimicked behavior to me.

        too many small mannerisms for it to have been an entirely novel, instantly learned behavior.

        • daveau
          Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

          Yeah, I’m not sayin’ I actually believe that story.

  2. Tulse
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m confused — the orang doesn’t seem particularly attractive to me.

    What really got me was not the orang using a wet cloth, or even that the orang wetted it before using it — it was the wringing out the cloth that was very eerily human-like.

    • HP
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      OTOH, her refusal to share the washcloth or to wipe off the juvenile orang seemed eerily unhuman. I can’t imagine not wiping a child’s face, particularly if (as seems likely here) it’s a close relation.

      • Filippo
        Posted August 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        OTOH, one wouldn’t relinguish the towel – one wouldn’t allow the child to feel that it was entitled to just take it – if one were in the middle of using it.

      • Chris Granger
        Posted August 23, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Selfishness as eerily inhuman? You have to be kidding me. I wish I had a nickel for every second-rate parent who would do exactly this to their child.

        • Posted August 24, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

          Heck you say. Second rate!? You don’t give your kid everything he wants, as soon as he wants it. Even if you COULD do that, it wouldn’t be good for him. You don’t go around saying no just for the fun of it, but, as a previous poster mentioned, there’s nothing wrong with saying “I’m using it right now, you have to wait your turn!”

          • Chris Granger
            Posted August 24, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

            Perhaps I didn’t express my thought very well. What I meant by “second-rate parent” was someone who would selfishly (and routinely) withhold something good (in this case the cool, damp cloth) from the child rather than share it.

            Of course I don’t think a child should get everything he or she “demands”… That’d be a recipe for spoiled brat, obviously.

    • H.H.
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, how did it know to twist instead of scrunch? That was pretty neat to watch.

    • AR
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      The wringing out of the towel was what got me, too. Really cool to watch.

      • Janice C
        Posted August 23, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        Also, wiping off the stone was cool at around the 1:59 mark. As far as not giving the washcloth to the younger orang I don’t think we’re seeing the whole story (like ages, relationships, behavioral cues, etc.)

  3. Posted August 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    At the Houston Zoo, many chimpanzees carry around blankets and towels to keep themselves warm when they are outside on a cold day in winter. They will sit with the blanket wrapped around their head and body and then carry it with them when they move. One juvenile even found a low spot and would sit in it with the blanket over the dip so it was nearly completely protected from the wind.

  4. Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Orangs have always struck me as being much brighter than they’re given credit for.


    • daveau
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Dr. Zaius was a scientist.

      • Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        Yeah…but so was Ludwig von Drake….


        • daveau
          Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          Silly. That’s a cartoon.

          • Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

            Is not! It’s honest reportage!


    • daveau
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      To play nice, for a change, I have never noticed that Orangs were being given short shrift. They are clearly intelligent. Just a little more laid back than the other apes.

      • Posted August 23, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        …including, it must be noted, us human apes. We could learn a thing or two from our 600 nm cousins….



        • daveau
          Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:08 am | Permalink

          I always include us in that group.

      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        Ben Goren is correct. Until relatively recently, say 15 y ago or so, orangu’tans were considered by psychologists & anthropologists to be not very bright & primitive compared to their “more complex” relatives, Pan & Homo. I may be mistaken, but, as I recall, cognitive research (by Benjamin Beck?) @Smithsonian’s National Zoo provided the first confident evidence of orangu’tans’ ability to solve multi-factorial problems in laboratory environments. Note that, like most mammals, orangu’tans are solitary. This trait among others led to prejudice against them. A good introduction to orangu’tans is Peter Rodman’s dated but still very useful chapter in the edited volume, Primate Societies (Smuts et al., 1987, Univ. of Chicago Press).

    • cornbread_r2
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard that some zookeepers use Orangs to test out new enclosures/cages for escapability.

  5. Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Does it really matter if it’s learned behavior or imitated? It’s not like feral children learn how to use tools on their own either.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      Does it really matter if it’s learned behavior or imitated?

      well, an imitated behavior IS a learned behavior, but yes, it does matter if it is mimicked or novel behavior, with regards to how we classify the learning potential overall.

      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        Perhaps it’s me; but, I haven’t a clue what you’re attempting to communicate.

  6. Paul of Catharsis
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”

  7. Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    That was magnificent!!!! Especially the wringing.

    Somewhere I read about a chimp that hid a tool for later use in a successful escape from a zoo cage…will try to find the link.

  8. Posted August 23, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Check out this article with great videos of chimps solving tool-use problems that stumped young human kids. The best was a chimp that used his urine to solve the problem (see the second video in the article), an innovation the experimenters themselves hadn’t foreseen. Birds also outperformed young kids.

  9. Jeffy Joe
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Tulse – I didn’t think the orangutan was all that hot, either. I guess I’m more of a gibbon man, myself.

  10. Posted August 23, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I just remembered the capuchin monkeys that live in the town of Mishualli, near where I live. These monkeys have been seen to pick up big stones to smash nuts and other foods. They also know which townspeople are mean to them, and communicate this to each other, so they all attack someone who has been mean to one of them. They sleep under the eaves of people’s roofs. Here is a tourist video of one of them:

    There is a brief snippet of stone use by these Mishualli capuchins just after 4:29 in this video:

  11. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    If Orangs can use tools then there it may be possible for Republicans too.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted August 23, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

      Don’t set your expectations too high now.

  12. Posted August 23, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Check out this orangutan smoking! It must be imitating people, but very cool anyway:

    • Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      In my behavior, there is nothing “very cool” or even approximately “cool” about this and similar anthropomorphic aberrations. I consider such behavioral enhancement to be abuse and contrary to enlightened and ethical treatment of animals (non-human or otherwise).

      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        “In my opinion” not “In my behavior”

        • Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

          Depends if the orang learned it himself by watching people, as I had assumed. It looks like a zoo, people throw stuff in the cages. Of course, the whole idea of sticking intelligent great apes in cages is sick in itself.

  13. Matt G
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Agree with others that the wringing out of the towel is most striking. Take away the rest of the body and some of the hair, ignore the slight differences in hand shape, and you’ve got yourself a human.

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted August 24, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Exactly. It defies my belief that anyone could watch this and cling to the myth that we’re (humans and orangs) not related.


      • Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        1. These sorts of anthropomorphic projections leave me sad, frustrated, and awestruck. I suppose it is fruitless to attempt to persuade observers of the depicted and similar behaviors to think critically about them, to consider alternative hypotheses, and to refrain from prior assumptions about the motor patterns’ mechanisms & functions.
        2. Tversky & Khanneman’s (sp?) idea of “functional fixedness” combined with propositions by behavioral ecologists and, earlier, behaviorists may facilitate possible explanations of the depicted action patterns. The former theory discusses when and under what conditions brain schemas may prevent the organism from utilizing properties for functions other than those originally intended (one of their examples is the screwdriver). The latter two disciplines noted that there are only a few possible responses permitted to an organism in a given condition. It might be considered that a rag provides the organism with a limited number of ways that it might be manipulated, etc., etc. [e.g., that the physical properties of the material (however defined) combined with physical and other constraints of the organism impose limits upon how the object/event can be manipulated]. One might be curious about differential tendencies of organisms to explore their environments; however, this is another set of questions.

        • Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          p.s. When I was a graduate student, a significant body of work by physiological psychologists was conducted on the limbic system, in particular, the reticular activating system (RAS). Now that cognitive psychology and neuroscience have swamped that disclipine and others, “higher-order” processes dominate (e.g., frontal cortex communicating & amygdala communication). I speculate that a renewed study of RAS & related structures/networks would reveal important influences of these tissues upon “higher functions” (and vice versa).

          • Posted August 25, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

            Have you ever lived with an intelligent animal like a good smart dog, or spent much time with smart animals in the wild? Your anthropocentricity leaves me sad, frustrated, and awestruck.

        • Posted August 25, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

          Clara, did you look at the link in my Comment #8? Look especially at the chimp that pees into the tube to raise the water level in order to get the floating food. I seriously doubt that he learned this behavior by watching the experimenters!!!!

  14. Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    the orang was very nonchalant about it!

  15. Posted August 28, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Here is an interesting sequence of human-like chimp behaviors:

    Thanks to Ethan at Starts with a Bang for pointing to this website, “Animals being dicks”,

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