Orangutan cultures face extinction, studies say

Jan 09, 2003, vol. 26, no. 1
By Marianne Meadahl

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SFU primatologist Biruté Galdikas (left) has spent more than three decades studying the orangutans of Tanjung Puting park in central Indonesian Borneo.

The world's leading orangutan researchers have concluded that orangutan populations have their own distinct cultures, and that great-ape cultures may have existed for at least 14 million years.

The finding means that as specific orangutan groups become extinct, their unique culture also disappears.

Researchers met for the first time last year to compare notes on their individual and exhaustive years of study. Their results have been published in the Jan. 3 issue of Science.

SFU primatologist Biruté Galdikas, a co-author of the paper Orangutan Cultures and the Evolution of Material Culture www.sciencemag.org has spent more than three decades studying the orangutans of Tanjung Puting park in central Indonesian Borneo. The researchers are involved in wild orangutan studies in six different regions in Borneo and neighbouring Sumatra. Using a list of cultural variables, they compared their findings on everything from food, home ranging, tool use, and nesting to see if there was a universal orangutan culture, or whether there was a geographical variance. “We found that each population had its own traditions,” says Galdikas. “Given that orangutans are on the verge of extinction, it highlights the severity and uniqueness of what we're losing. What this means is that we can't save one population of orangutans and think we're saving the species.”

The analysis of orangutan culture follows recent related work on chimpanzees showing geographic patterns in many behavioral variants that are consistent with the operation of cultural processes, notes Galdikas.

In addition to finding geographic variation in orangutan behaviours, researchers found correlations between geographic distance and cultural difference, as well as the abundance of opportunities for social learning and the size of the local cultural repertoire, and that habitat did not obviously effect the content of culture.

Researchers who attended the Leaky Foundation-sponsored meeting have all studied wild orangutans for at least five years. They are from Japan, The Netherlands, Indonesia, Malaysia, the U.S. and Canada.
“We've all been doing our research independently, so it was amazing how we all seem to speak with one voice,” says Galdikas.

Researchers hope to further document the possible interdependence among various cultural elements, identify the conditions favouring their evolution and assess whether they all show the geographic and social correlates known for humans and as demonstrated for great apes.

In the same issue of Science, a paper by SFU biologists Bernard Crespi and Stevan Springer, Social Slime Molds Meet Their Match, provides an analysis of research conducted by a team from Rice University in Texas on gene behavior in the slime mold Dictyoselium.

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