Orangutans Plan And Share Their Routes Before Hitting the Road

The authors suspect that other great apes and species of intelligent animals likely use similar communication strategies

Part of the fun in planning a trip with friends is plotting out an itinerary and discussing the details. Orangutans, apparently, agree. New research published in PLoS One finds that these fuzzy orange apes plan their travel routes in advance and share those ideas with friends.

Humans once thought that we were the only species who could conceptualize and plan for the future. Not so. In recent years, scientists have confirmed that brainy great apes in zoos and other captive environments can strategize for the future.

Photo: Belgianchocolate

But it was still a mystery if wild apes were too busy surviving to exhibit the same skill. So team of scientists began following orangutans around Sumatra’s sticky, dense swamps for several years. The researchers focused in on the loud, long calls that males make, usually to attract and keep the attention of females. These calls, they reasoned, could act as a verbal roadmap for where the males planned to travel next.

Observing the apes’ movements, the researchers began confirming that males did indeed pursue the direction of their call, sometimes up to a day after they first vocalized it. Additionally, if he decided to switch direction, he let out a new call. If a male emitted a call near bedtime, the next morning his travel direction matched closely with that route. “The male does not require any reminders or reinforcement of his original main travel direction,” the authors of the new study write.

The male’s “audience” also takes advantage of this information, sometimes the day after they have received it. Inferior males tended to steer clear of that travel route, whereas females stuck closely with it. “The ranging responses of his audience show that other orangutans actually use this information, suggesting in addition some communication of plans from the male to his female audience,” the authors write.

Given how handy planning for future travel is for maximizing efficiency and keeping friends close, the authors suspect that other great apes and species of intelligent animals likely have similar strategies, unknown yet to science. More studies will be required to confirm whether other animals are indeed busy discussing their plans while we’ve stood by oblivious to those chattering, however.

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