The Orangutan: The Overlooked Ape Essay

1826 words - 7 pages

Study of the orangutan began in earnest in the 70s, when Louis Leakey dispatched Birutė Galdikas to join Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey in their study of the great apes (de Waal, 1995). While Goodall’s work with chimpanzees brought extensive public awareness to the animal (Quammen, 2003) and Fossey’s groundbreaking study of gorillas was so prominent a Hollywood film was based on her work (“The Gorilla King,” 2008), Birutė Galdikas and her orangutans didn’t capture the hearts of the public in quite the same way (Schwartz, 1987). That disregard is a shame, as there is much the orangutan can show us. One aspect is their place in relation to their family members in Hominidae; are the two species that make up the orangutan closer to humans than chimpanzees? Another topic worthy of further examination is their social organization, characterized by a complex social network with mostly solitary lifestyles (Strier, 2000). An additional area of study is their cognitive abilities. Is it possible for the orangutan to speak? These questions must be deliberated quickly, as these animals are in danger of extinction in the near future (Singleton, Wich, & Griffiths, 2008) (Ancrenaz et al., 2008) Hopefully, further education will increase interest in and awareness of the Red Ape.
The term orangutan originates from the Malay and Indonesian words “orang,” meaning “person,” and “hutan,” meaning “forest,” (Harper, 2001). It was once used as a catch-all term for what we now consider the non-human hominids; this is showcased in Edward Tyson’s influential book Orang-Outang, dive Homo Sylvestris, Or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with That of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man which, while using the term “orang-outang,” likely refers to a bonobo or chimpanzee. To compare, while the term “orangutan” still referred to all great apes in the 18th century (Tan, 1998), the term “chimpanzee” being used for Pan troglodytes entered the lexicon as early as 1640, and even had the affectionate nickname “chimp” by the 19th century (“Chimpanzee,” 2013). This etymological hiccup showcases the relative shunning orangutans have received next to their other hominid relatives.
In fact, little was known about the orangutan until as late as 1971, when aforementioned trailblazer Birutė Galdikas’ work on the animal in Borneo’s Tanjung Puting National Park began (de Waal, 1995). Her field work revealed the intimate details and overarching structures of orangutans’ lives, including their habits of communication (Galdikas & Insley, 1988), and social relations between genders (Galdikas & Teleki, 1981). Additional breakthroughs include ____ which resulted in scientists dividing the orangutan into two species.
The orangutan truly encompasses two species: pongo abelii and pongo pygmaeus, the Sumatran and Bornean Orangutan, respectively. They diverged 1.5 million years ago, allowing for some significant phenotypic differences. Sumatran Orangutans are thinner, paler, and fully grown males have...

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