In Orangutan Parenting, kids can get their own dinner

Young orangutans are very similar to toddler humans: lovable, endearing, adorable. But unlike human children, when their mothers say no, they don’t complain or argue.

Mother orangutans teach their young to forage, adapting their tactics depending on the age of the child and the complexity of the food-gathering technique. And they know exactly when a child is old enough to know better.

A new study, published this month in Scientific Reports, describes 21 young orangutans living with their mothers in a forest on the west coast of Sumatra’s Aceh province. Researchers recorded 1,390 incidents of minors asking for food from their mothers, usually simply by grabbing it from the mother’s hands. Mothers tolerate this, but only up to a point.

“No one did a lot of work on this, and no one had data like this for Sumatran orangutans,” said David P. Watts, professor of anthropology at Yale who has published extensively. on the behavior of primates but did not participate in this study. “The whole subject of how young primates learn what they need to eat – people haven’t studied that much.”

Orangutans stay with their mothers for eight or nine years, longer than almost all mammals except humans. But time is not wasted: during this period, they learn to recognize, collect and process more than 200 foods.

Foods like leaves and flowers are easy to find and ready to eat. But for most fruits, a large part of their diet, orangutans need to know when they are ripe, what parts are edible, and how to extract them. And some foods involve the use of tools: getting honey from a beehive, for example, requires the selection and design of a suitable stick, as well as long practice to perfect the skill of using it.

An orangutan is 8 years old before having acquired the basic knowledge of how to eat, and up to 12 years before mastering the most complex techniques of foraging and preparing for food.

Researchers have found that the older the child and the easier the food to find and prepare, the less willing mothers are to share. Mothers let young children grab almost any food and allow even older children to grab hard-to-find foods. But if an older youngster tries to grab some flowers – easy to find and eat – she won’t let him, essentially telling the child that he’s old enough to find hers.

The best and rarest foods – the meat of small primates, squirrels and civets that orangutans sometimes hunt – are readily shared with children of all ages.

Mother orangutans are patient, and young orangutans are generally docile and docile. If a mother does not want to share, she will simply turn away or put herself in a position where the child cannot reach for the food. No slaps, no screams, no drama – but the youngster gets the message.

“We know that people and orangutans have role models that adjust their behavior based on a student’s needs,” said Caroline Schuppli, lead author of the study. “In humans, adults do it proactively; with orangs the initiative comes from the child – they have to ask for food.

Dr Schuppli, research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany, said human children are surrounded by enthusiastic teachers – not only their parents, but extended family and a whole host. educational system based mainly on active teaching. .

“If you think about what a child needs to learn, it’s way beyond their imagination, beyond what they could actively ask for,” she said. “But with orangutans, it’s a little easier. “

Are some orangutans better teachers than others? Nobody knows.

“We would need to show that some mothers of orangutans have children who learn faster,” said Dr Schuppli. “If a mother shares more, do her children learn faster? We do not know. We don’t have the right kind of data to test if this is the case.

In any animal research, and perhaps particularly with primates, there is a danger of anthropomorphizing – attributing human characteristics or behavior to animals without solid evidence. Dr Schuppli tries to resist the impulse.

“The data we collect is descriptive first, and interpretation comes later,” she said. “We analyze the data, based on our assumptions. But every great ape researcher has times when they relate what they see to the behavior of humans. “


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