Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Orangutan Neophobia - And Why I Didn't Go to Borneo

May 20, 2011

The first “thick letter” of my graduate school life—notification that I’d won a fellowship to study tool-use behavior—sent me to the Oklahoma City Zoo to observe orangutans. Together with other fellowship winners, I lived in an on-site building just above the zoo’s necropsy room; I still carry sense memories of days like the one when an ostrich was examined post-mortem.

My summer project was modest: to study how captive orangutans may learn to use tools to obtain hidden foods. Share mutual gaze with any great ape you’ve come to know, and the world (and your understanding of your place in it) probably shifts a little. I was hooked, and the following summer, courtesy of thick letter #2, I went on to a fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park next summer, to observe orangutans Junior, Pensi, Azy, et al., and ask more questions about learning.

Though often saddled with the label “solitary,” in fact these apes—who unlike their African cousins the chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas live in no permanent social groups in the wild—flare into social togetherness under certain conditions, as when food is plentiful and clustered, or during the years of tight mother-infant bonds. In captivity I saw, on an individual level, manifestation of this unique mix: clever close watching of others mixed with a distinctive self-reflective air, an orangutan version of keeping one’s own counsel.

At one point during these years, the famous ape researcher Birute Galdikas visited Oklahoma and suggested that I might observe wild orangutans at her site in Borneo. There was, she admitted, a catch: I should please get married first. To whom wasn’t of any particular importance-- perhaps a young man in my primatology seminar? If I showed up in the field as a single woman, I wouldn’t be taken seriously by the locals.

Now there was a dilemma! Everyone knows that Dian Fossey offered up her appendix in order to convince Louis Leakey that she was worthy of gorilla research in Africa— Galdikas, however, was asking for no mere bodily organ but a significant alteration in my demographic status!

Suffice to say that, though I didn’t go to Borneo, I feel a special affection for orangutans to this day, and stay informed about their behavior and conservation status [see blog entry of November 5]. Latest to catch my eye is an article called Neophobia and learning mechanisms: How captive orangutans discover medicinal plants. Published online at Folia Primatologica last month, it’s written by Erik Gustafsson, Sabrina Krief, and Michel Saint Jaime.

The idea was to explore how orangutans deal with new food items presented to them. The larger context involves the fact that some wild primates are known to self-medicate with plants, a fascinating finding that shows they are able to ingest plants with pharmacological properties that may “dose” ailments. The trick, though, is that the compounds that allow curative properties may also be quite toxic. Selecting the right plants is thus highly important. How do orangutans—with their comparatively limited socializing-- learn about such potentially important plants? To what degree are they neophobic, reluctant to do eat novel foods?

In this study, four weaned Bornean orangutans housed at the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris were presented with novel plants, in both a “group’” and an “individual” condition. All plants came from the French pharmacopoeia, i.e., were classified as potentially therapeutic in nature. Based on their knowledge of orangutan diet and behavior, Gustafsson et al. expected to find little neophobia, but also few instances of social facilitation of plant choice.

Neophobia was exhibited, as predicted, at only low levels. “To cope with the relative unpredictability of resources in the wild,” the researchers write, “orangutans may be predisposed to low cautiousness. This would allow them to make rapid use of new food items when common resources become scarce in their environment.”

The orangutans, however, did show “a strong propensity to look to conspecifics for information.” Food-donating, food-stealing, and “close observation” (what I termed “close face” in my work), when two orangutans bring their faces and thus their gaze together at near range, all occurred. (In food-donating, it deserves note, unpalatable plant parts were transferred.)

Summing up, the researchers write, “Numerous close observations and food sharing between individuals occurred with all plants presented under the group condition, and all individuals were both demonstrators and observers.” To me this makes perfect sense. Orangutans are highly adaptable creatures- I saw this in my two captive studies. Not naturally selected to group together in the wild as adults unless food sources permit, they will nonetheless pay attention to the nuances of their social partners when thrust together—a tendency that researcher Carel van Schaik explains has permitted the orangutans’ sophisticated tool-using behavior at a site in Sumatra, where food ecology propels the apes to pack in tightly together for certain periods.

About the Paris orangutans, I wonder: Did their trust of humans explain in part their lack of caution? Even if the orangutans had no personal relationship with the researchers themselves, might they have transferred to these humans a sense of trust derived from bonding with their caretakers?

Could we imagine an experimental addendum to this research that stars humans as “good” and “bad” food-presenters? The “good” person might offer highly-prized food treats to the orangutans in a pre-testing phase, whereas the “bad” presenter could stand in front of the apes and exaggeratedly enjoy – but not share—such treats. Would the nature of the emotional response provoked by each type of presenter make any difference in the orangutans’ responses to the offered plants?


  1. May 23, 2011 1:54 PM EDT
    I read your blog with interest, having spent time with Birute Galdikas and having been to her facilities. From what I saw, the local people are perfectly willing to accept the differences of westerners. The problem for field researchers going alone may be more the social one of isolation.

    Shawn Thompson, author of The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species
    - Shawn Thompson
  2. May 24, 2011 10:19 AM EDT
    Shawn- thank you for writing. I'm going to check out your book with great interest! As for the locals, I wonder how much may have changed since the early '80s? At the time, Birute was quite adamant about her reasoning, but it's very likely that attitudes have shifted by now.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.