'Orang' and 'utan' are the Malay words meaning 'person' and 'forest'; the orangutan is literally a 'person of the forest'.


Food and Hunting

Fruit makes up half the orangutan's diet. Orangutans are very intelligent and seem to be able to memorise the geography of their surroundings and will travel great distances through the forest, managing to arrive in a particular area just when the trees have ripe fruit. When there is plenty of food in an area, an orangutan may stay there for as long as the supply lasts, often sharing the area with several other orangutans; little social interaction goes on and they usually leave singly.

The orangutan, who wants to ‘be like you’ according to the Jungle Book, has taken this a step further and has been spotted using tools for fishing!  Although they spend most of their time in the trees they are drawn to rivers and ponds for healthy, meaty nutrition.  This is impressive considering orangutans are no good in water and couldn’t swim even if you asked politely.

Research teams from America and Canada who studied the apes for several years saw many orangutans teach themselves how to jab at catfish with sticks.  Using sharp sticks the apes jabbed the water from the water's edge, or by holding onto branches and reaching towards the water.  The panicked prey would then jump out of the pond to be caught by the waiting orangutan.  You won’t find many primates fishing in the jungle, but it does happen.  Chimpanzees and some monkeys fish with their hands, but to fish with tools shows a greater intelligence.

On most occasions orangutans were seen fishing alone, but every so often they would fish in pairs and look as if they were teaching others how to get their own healthy treats.  This impressive feat can tell us more about our origins as humans.  Humans and orangutans are known as ‘hominids’ because we belong to the same biological family known as Hominoidea.  This means that we are very closely related in terms of evolution and ancestry.  In fact, we share 97% of our genes with orangutans.

Clever orangutans who discovered that they could grab fish along the shore of rivers and ponds started to use sticks to help them further, making the move from catching fish by chance, to setting out to catch them deliberately.  The effort that the red apes put into fishing highlights the importance of marine food in a healthy diet, for orangutans and also for humans. 

Fish contain nutrition which aids brain growth, and strong evidence of fish eating in our biological family dates back 2 million years.  However seeing the orangutans learn how to fish and teach fishing within their community suggests to researchers that meat-eating has been going on a lot longer than suspected and probably originated from before what is known as the Homo genus - that is the family from which we homo sapiens, or humans, evolved.  

Read More: Breeding

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