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10 Interesting Facts About Orangutans

Updated on January 10, 2017

An Endangered Cousin

All of the great apes (except us) are critically endangered, but none more so than the two orangutan subspecies. Extinction within the next decade or two is a real possibility.
All of the great apes (except us) are critically endangered, but none more so than the two orangutan subspecies. Extinction within the next decade or two is a real possibility. | Source

Introduction

We humans sometimes often like to think of ourselves as something special, somehow separate from the rest of life. Often when we refer to the animal kingdom, we think of it as some separate or even inferior concept. We have a tendency to refer to everything from bees to chimps as "animals" while keeping ourselves separate. It seems a rather odd thing to do because, in fact, we share more than 90 percent of our DNA with the great apes. We are more closely related to chimps and gorillas than lions are to tigers, and they can still breed with each other.

Over the years, we humans have gradually come to understand the wild habits of chimpanzees, gorillas and the other ape, the acrobatic gibbon, but the life of the orangutan, even to this day remains somewhat of a mystery even to the most passionate and devoted of experts. But at least here, in this article, we can acknowledge that we know a lot more about orangutans than we did half a century ago. Below, I will outline ten interesting and key facts that we definitely know about wild orangutans, as well as some of the most interesting and perplexing mysteries that still surround these so called 'men of the forest.'

The Orangutan Subspecies

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This is a Bornean orangutan with its slightly squarer head......and the Sumatran orangutan with its slightly taller or longer head.
This is a Bornean orangutan with its slightly squarer head...
This is a Bornean orangutan with its slightly squarer head... | Source
...and the Sumatran orangutan with its slightly taller or longer head.
...and the Sumatran orangutan with its slightly taller or longer head. | Source

The Males Cheek Pads

Adult male orangutans develop cheek-pads when they normally reach 30 years old. Its thought they aid with vocalisation, but more importantly they make the males appear larger.
Adult male orangutans develop cheek-pads when they normally reach 30 years old. Its thought they aid with vocalisation, but more importantly they make the males appear larger. | Source

Mother and Baby

Very few mammals can match the parental devotion shown by orangutans. Only human infants spend a longer amount of time with their mothers than orangutans.
Very few mammals can match the parental devotion shown by orangutans. Only human infants spend a longer amount of time with their mothers than orangutans. | Source

The Facts

  1. A solitary ape: In the wild, orangutans are generally solitary creatures, or semi-solitary at least, which is quite unlike any other ape, or indeed most other of the so-called ‘higher’ primates (apes and monkeys). Once they reach maturity, they spend most of their time alone, or in the case of females with their offspring. The large adult males with fully developed cheek pads take solitary living to the extreme, spending up to 90 percent of their time completely alone.
  2. Two sub-species of orang-utan: Orangutans today live on just two islands, Borneo and the northern area of Sumatra. The two populations have lived separately from each other for nearly two million years, and in that time have evolved into separate subspecies. At first glance, it can be hard to tell them apart, but there are some subtle differences. The Bornean’s have quite a square head, while the Sumatran’s heads are generally taller, more diamond shaped, with much smaller cheek pads and vocal sacs. The Sumatran’s also boast splendid beards which are absent in the Bornean subspecies. The Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are actually relics of a range of subspecies that once inhabited great swathes of Asia including southern China, Java, Vietnam and southern Sumatra, but sadly the rise of the human population and the loss of habitat mean that the species is now entirely absent from its prehistoric range.
  3. The largest arboreal animal: Orangutans are the largest arboreal or tree dwelling animals on the planet, while it is true that even large male gorillas occasionally climb trees in order to feed, they are not a true arboreal animal and spend most of their time on the ground. Adult male orangutans, on the other hand, spend over 90 percent of their time in the canopy despite weighing around 300Ib’s. Adult females spend even more time in the canopy, mostly eating ripe fruit, young leaves and maybe the occasional vine or termite.
  4. Cheek-pads: Adult male orangutans develop cheek pads, which serve to frame the face, making their heads appear much larger than they actually are. In captivity, males have been known to develop cheek pads as young as 13, but more typically the pads don’t appear until around the age of 30. Once a male has gained his cheek pads, he will not tolerate any other males in his immediate vicinity and will compete with them for the attention of the females. The cheek pads also help to enhance the males’ booming call, which he uses to broadcast his presence through the dense forest.
  5. Males and females: Of all the primates, the orangutan experiences the most pronounced sexual dimorphism, with the large males being three times bigger than the females. As well as their cheek pads, they also sport a throat pouch that acts as a resonating chamber for his loud call. He also possesses a highly muscular body which forms as a result of a testosterone surge in the latter stages of adolescence.
  6. Mother and young: Orangutans have the most intense relationship between mother and young of any mammal except humans. Females will carry their offspring for around five years and may suckle them for up to seven years. For a young orangutan, its mother is the only companion it will have for about eight years. In fact, mother and young will sleep together in the nest every single night until another infant is born. All in all, it can take as much as 13 or 14 years, for a young orang-utan to feel confident enough to leave its mother.
  7. Time between births: Of all mammals, the orangutan has the longest birth interval, often giving birth on average, once every eight years. Although, in Sumatra, some females may wait as long as a decade between births. In fact, this is one of the factors that make orangutans especially vulnerable to extinction; the other key factor is that females often don’t start breeding until the age of 17, which means that if a significant number of adult females are killed, then it can take decades for a population to recover.
  8. Asia’s great ape: Orangutans are the only great apes to be found anywhere in Asia. Their far distant ancestors originally lived in Africa, but dispersed from there some 15 million years ago during the Miocene period. At this time, there were many different species of ape living all across Africa, Asia and even parts of Europe which enjoyed a balmy climate at this point. However, the coming of the ice ages would spell the end for most of these ape species, except of course the ancestors of the modern great apes, including us.
  9. Gentle giants: Orangutans, along with gorillas are the most gentle natured of all the apes and will often sit for hours simply gazing at nothing in particular. Attacks by orangutans on humans are virtually unheard of; contrast this to the chimpanzee whose aggression towards each other and humans is well documented. This aggression can manifest itself even in chimps that have been lovingly cared for by humans in captivity.
  10. Intelligence: Like all great apes, orangutans are exceptionally smart and can easily match their more high profile African cousins in cognitive tests. In captivity especially, they demonstrate exceptional tool making ability and versatility. One captive bred orangutan was even taught how to chip a stone hand axe. In the wild, one particular population makes and uses tools specifically for extracting fruit, except that, unlike chimps, they hold the tools in their mouths.

Amazing Footage of an Orangutan Narrated by Sir David Attenborough

What We Don't Know About Orangutans

1. Why are they orange? So why are orangutans orange when their chimp and gorilla cousins are black? Well, whilst their fur blazes bright orange in direct sunlight, once they retreat into cover, their tan skin absorbs the light, so you don’t see their sparse hair, but rather their dark skin, so effectively, they become black. Perhaps this remarkable change in colour is somehow adaptive in some way, or is the bright orange fur some sort of signalling device for when these normally solitary primates come into contact with other individuals.

2. Their life expectancy in the wild? In captivity, orangutans routinely live well into their 60's. Studies have shown that females born in the late 1960’s in parts of northern Sumatra are still fit, healthy and bearing offspring. It could well be that they live as long as 70, but truthfully we cannot say for certain.

3. How far do the males travel in a lifetime? Male orangutans travel much greater distances during their lifetime than the females. According to experts, they may travel as much as several hundred miles from their mother’s home range. Indeed, one particular male in northern Sumatra was documented as having travelled more than 20 miles away from his mother in just one year. So it’s likely, that a large portion of males may travel more at least 100 miles away from their mothers.

4. Have they always been solitary? It’s possible that back in prehistory the orangutan was far more gregarious than they are at present, and indeed captive-bred individuals that have been released back into the wild tend to be more gregarious than their wild contemporaries. Perhaps, in the past when orangutans lived in fertile lowland areas with abundant food, they were far more social and gregarious. Since then though, humans have steadily destroyed the forests to make way for agriculture, those fertile and abundant areas soon disappeared along with the social orang-utan, that it’s if they existed in the first place.

5. Extinction- will they survive? This is the million dollar question when it comes to orangutans. In a comparatively short space of time, vast swathes of their habitat in Borneo and Sumatra have been catastrophically destroyed. Many people are working very hard to save the species and its habitat, but as is always the case with conservation there are many forces and factors that hinder any sort of protection and recovery. Indeed, it seems that many of these forces and factors just simply work against the orangutan. It may well be that, if we are lucky we can save maybe one of two wild populations, with the rest living out their lives in a captive environment.

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    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 4 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Great Hub about an amazing animal. Thanks so much for the enjoyable read. I never realized their habitat was so limited. Voted up and awesome!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks so much Suzie! Yes, unfortunately their extinction with our lifetime is a very real possibility. I just hope that somehow they can survive in the wild. I've seen orangutans in a zoo before and while it was incredible to see them, I'd rather see them in the forest. Thanks again Suzie.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      This was an interesting report. we still have them at the SF zoo.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Hi James.

      There must be a case for establishing new wild populations of endangered animals, like Orang Utans, in areas less prone to pressure from humans. I know most naturalists are against introducing alien species into new environments, but surely, it's better than letting them become extinct.

      Thanks for a very interesting and informative article.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Mhatter, we've still got them too here in the UK (in zoos). I've seen them in both Twycross and Jersey Zoo, magnificent animals.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Chris,

      I'm not sure about orangutans, but I do know that there are some people who are looking to introduce animals like elephants and lions into North America to replace their relatives that became extinct some 10,000 years ago. I've also heard about Bengal tigers being released into the wild in South Africa, because apparently South Africa offers better protection for them than India. But it is controversial as you say, because most naturalists are worried about any further ecological disruption- but we'll see. Personally, I'd be willing to give it a go with orangutans- anything to ensure that they have somewhere to live in the wild.

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      One of my favourite animals, it saddens me to know they are endangered, it's tragic.

      I always remember visiting a zoo and an orangutan came up to the wire and put his hand out asking for some of my icelolly - I felt so sorry for him.

      An excellent article, thank you and voted up.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      James, interesting hub. I love orangutans because they are so completely different from other apes. And I was not surprised to read that they are quite solitary, I thnk they act shy. I went to San Diego Zoo years ago and they had a brilliant orangutan there, he was very funny and really played to the crowd (I know he would have been better off in the wild but it was a huge zoo and he was in an enormous space).

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Lesley, I had similar experience when I was at Twycross Zoo. I remember seeing a big male through a glass panel in the enclosure. There were loads of kids pointing at him, banging on the glass etc. He turned his head for a moment and looked me right in the eye. In his eyes and on his face I saw sadness, it was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had. Thanks again.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Jools, I remember seeing a chimp who was like that in Twycross Zoo, he seemed to love the attention, but I couldn't help but think that he would be much better off in the wild, couldn't help but feel sad for him. Thanks for popping by Jools.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi James. You wrote:

      "Attacks by orangutans on humans are virtually unheard of; contrast this to the chimpanzee whose aggression towards each other and humans is well documented."

      It's my understanding that adult male orangutans sometimes rape unescorted women who are walking through the forest. While this is not chimp-like aggression for the sake of territoriality, food, or social position, it certainly is violence from the perspective of their victims. Is this the way that gentle giants conduct themselves?

      Voted up and interesting.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow, Larry I'd never heard of that. I even looked for any references of orangutans attacking humans and found nothing. It certainly goes to show that perhaps things aren't as clear cut as we think. I've always considered orangutans to be the most gentle of all the apes, but maybe they do have a darker side to them after all. Thanks for that.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi James. You wrote:

      "I even looked for any references of orangutans attacking humans and found nothing."

      Try googling on the following search terms:

      "Julia Roberts"

      orangutan

      rape

    • Lightshare profile image

      Lightshare 4 years ago

      Awesome hub jkenny. Even the pictures are wonderful!!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I did, and apparently according to wikipedia at least, it was likely that 'rape was almost certainly the fate of Julia Roberts, when she was grabbed by the orangutan, but there is currently no solid evidence to support these claims. Hmmm...interesting, I think its certainly possible, I have heard of dolphins apparently attempting to rape women in the water. Disturbing stuff.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Perhaps these wonderful animals need their own island in order to proliferate WITHOUT humanity.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I agree Deb, I think that goes for all of the great apes, as it seems that there is little chance of them surviving alongside us. If we're not destroying their habitat, we're eating them or selling them illegally as pets. It makes me feel sick.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Very interesting James! Orangutans are unique animals and it's nice to see a shout out to them. I must say though, they are not a cute animal. Excellent hub!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hehehe, you're right Sunshine, they're not exactly the cutest and cuddliest animals around, but for me anyway, there probably one of the most fascinating animals on the planet. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Lightshare.

    • kathleenkat profile image

      kathleenkat 4 years ago from Bellingham, WA

      Interesting bit about orangutans. I did not know about the orange hair thing, though I suppose I thought it was just a hair color thing (they are all gingers? haha).

      Orangutans, I think, are very human-like. I recall visiting the zoo, once, and I saw a solitary orangutan that looked very sad. The zoo keeper told me his mate got relocated because they were not able to get pregnant. Very sad; I would be sad too!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Kathleen I had a similar experience at a zoo with a big male who was in an enclosure behind glass. There were all these kids banging on the glass- which they can't help, but what bothered me was that the parents were doing it too. Anyway, this big male retreated to the far corner to hunker down, but not before risking a glance back at the overexcited kids. For a moment we exchanged a glance, and I read sadness in his eyes. I hope he was able to detect the sense of empathy I felt for him. Anyway, it was a life changing experience, and made me realise just how similar we are. Hope I didn't bore you too much with that hahaha. Thanks for popping by.

    • profile image

      whowas 4 years ago

      A great article on orangutans, JKenny.

      It is now almost certain that they will become extinct in the wild state within the next decade. However, all is not yet lost for our gentle sisters and brothers of the forest. A massive international effort of cooperation among modern, conservation focused zoos is preserving the gene-pool in the hope that in the future, when enough people finally learn to care about these things beyond simple sentimentality, they can be re-introduced into salvaged or recreated habitats.

      We have to be hopeful and do what we can. Thanks for bringing the plight and the delight of these astonishing creatures to our attention once more.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I agree whowas, there is always hope, not just for orangutans, but for gorillas, chimps and bonobos too. If they were to go extinct entirely, it would be the biggest wildlife tragedy of all, because how we could possibly understand ourselves, if we never managed to fully understand our closest relatives. Thanks for stopping by.

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Wow - this is incredible information and the video you provided was simply amazing. Glad I stopped by to read this. I love all animals but n ever did the research on these. So adorable! Great hub!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Elizabeth, and thank you for the fan mail too. Nice to meet you!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Years ago, I went to Sarawak to visit the Orangutans. It was very interesting. One of them wanted to snatch my purse.

    • Besarien profile image

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Wonderful hub! Congratulations on HotD! I really enjoying learning more about Orangutans.

      I wonder if orange hair was better suited to blocking harmful UV light ( just like amber blue-blocking sunglass lenses) which is damaging to tissues and eyesight. Might be interesting to study the incidents of macular degeneration and skin cancer in orangutans as opposed to other primates.

    • profile image

      pramalkumarsamanta 2 years ago

      Thanks for nice article on Orangutan. They should be well protected in their own natural habitat, failing which a time may come they will be extinct.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      You filled in so much I did not know about these amazing creatures. So hopeful they do not become one of the extinct creatures that can only be viewed on line or in books.

      Well done

      Angels are on the way to you this afternoon. ps

      Voted up+++ and shared

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      I live to watch sir david videos, he may be old but his speech is clear and precise about wild animals

    • profile image

      J James 9 months ago from USA

      Wonderful animals. I had been avoiding palm oil in food because I had been told we were destroying their habitat but I hadn't read anything about them. Thank you very much.

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