An Orangutan Learns to Fish

Ferris Jabr in The New Yorker:

Jabr-Orangutans-690In 1990, while visiting a research camp in central Borneo, the primatologist Anne Russon saw an orangutan nicknamed Supinah attempt to make fire. Supinah sauntered toward an ashy fire pit, picked up a stick glowing with embers, and dipped it into a nearby cup full of liquid. Russon thought that the cup contained water, but it in fact held kerosene. Fortunately, that bath did little more than dampen the wood. Yet Supinah persisted: she got a second glowing stick, blew on it, fanned it with her hands, and rubbed it against other sticks. She never got the right steps in the right order to start a fire, but what foiled her was not her innate intelligence. She had a clear goal in mind and the right kind of brain to achieve it. She just needed a little more practice.

At the time, Russon was visiting Camp Leakey, which the anthropologist Biruté Galdikas established, in 1971, to study orangutans, just as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey had done, in Africa, to observe chimpanzees and gorillas, respectively. Since then, Galdikas, Russon, and a handful of other orangutan specialists have learned firsthand just how intelligent and resourceful the animals really are. Some of their mental skills may exceed those of their great-ape brethren. Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust, has summarized the unique intellect of orangutans like this: “They say that if you give a chimpanzee a screwdriver, he’ll break it; if you give a gorilla a screwdriver, he’ll toss it over his shoulder; but if you give an orangutan a screwdriver, he’ll open up his cage and walk away.”

Compared with chimpanzees, which are highly excitable, orangutans seem far more sober and considerate. They move deliberately and often spend a good deal of time silently watching before deciding how to act. At Camp Leakey, the orangutans had plenty of opportunity to observe and imitate people. They soon developed a habit of stealing canoes, paddling them downriver, and abandoning them at their destinations.

More here.