09-22-2014 | Family Relations

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. Even triple and quadruple knots in the ropes securing the canoes to the dock did not deter the apes. Over the years, they have also learned to brush their teeth, bathe themselves, wash clothes, weed pathways, wield saws and hammers, and soak rags in water in order to cool their foreheads with them. And they have done all of this without any instruction.

For a time, the deftness of orangutans living near people was puzzling, because they did not seem to display such acumen on their own in the wild. More careful observation revealed otherwise. Scientists now know that wild orangutans use sticks to search for ants under tree bark, make hats and umbrellas out of large leaves, and sometimes drape themselves with lianas—forest vines—as if donning necklaces. When they need to cross a river that is too deep to ford safely, some orangutans bend saplings into bridges and twist several tree-anchored vines into a rope for extra support.

--from "An Orangutan Learns to Fish"

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