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Research finds that orangutans can communicate about the past just like humans

Orangutan infants stay with their mothers as long as human children do. It has been shown that this exceptionally long period ensures that mothers pass on a variety of knowledge, skills and tools to their offspring.

ADRIANO REIS E. LAMEIRA: ‘In the low mountain rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, a research team simulated a natural encounter with a predator to study the vocal responses of wild orangutan females. The set up consisted of a human researcher, disguised as a forest big cat, parading on all fours across the forest floor in front of the orangutan females… Despite showing all sorts of distress (including urinating and defecating), orangutan females refrained from responding vocally towards the “predator”. Instead, they waited up to 20 minutes to communicate their alarm to their offspring, long after the predator had left the scene. Across several experiments there was an average delay of seven minutes before the females vocally expressed their alarm.

The data (and simple common sense if we imagine ourselves facing a wild Sumatran tiger!) suggest that to respond vocally in the presence of a predator would have been a huge risk to the orangutans’ safety. If the females had responded immediately by calling out warnings, the predator could have detected them and perhaps attempted an attack, particularly on the infant orangutans. Instead, the mothers waited for a significant amount of time before signalling vocal alarm about the danger that had now passed. The question that springs to mind, then, is: why did the females signal their alarm at all? If they hadn’t responded vocally at any point, they wouldn’t have faced any danger at all, right?…

The female orangutans were teaching their young about the dangers in the forest by referring to something that had happened in the (recent) past… Orangutan infants stay with their mothers as long as human children do. It has been shown that this exceptionally long period ensures that mothers pass on a variety of knowledge, skills and tools to their offspring. Our new findings indicate that teaching about predators is a vital aspect of this. Widening this out to human language evolution, orangutans exemplify how our ancestors probably communicated beyond the here-and-now about the past.. By showing us that we are, after all, not so different from them, great apes help us learn where we come from, define who we are and, hopefully, decide where we are going as intelligent stewards of our precious planet.’  SOURCE…

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