The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Examination of female dyadic relationships in flexible social grouping of captive orangutans


Great Ape, Smithsonian National Zoological Park

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The semi-solitary disposition of wild orangutans has not only set them apart socially from all other great apes, but has also greatly impacted captive care methods. In this study, we investigate the effect that a captive environment has on the social behaviors of orangutans. Behavioral observations were collected on four female captive orangutans at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, in Washington, DC. These females were housed in various flexible social groupings, which also included two adult males. Our aim was to establish how much time female orangutans were spending with cohorts, as well as, what behaviors they were engaging in during this time. We found that, consistent with data collected in the wild, female orangutans spend a significant amount of time alone. When choosing to spend time with a conspecific, females preferred the company of other females, over males. In a captive environment where, inherently, there is great social opportunity, orangutans exhibit many social behaviors that are frequently seen in group-living apes. Our results showed that while equivalent levels of social behavior were observed among subjects in all groups, there was great variability among the specific behaviors exhibited depending on the group structure.

To gain a better understanding of common orangutan management strategies, we distributed a survey to all AZA institutions housing orangutans. Responses showed that there is great variation in social management between facilities, though minimal flexibility in group composition. Results from this study suggest that such flexibility can provide orangutans an opportunity for greater variance in social behavior.

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