01 October 2014

As the orangutan is one of our closest relatives we thought we’d explore some of the similarities and differences between us.

Growing up

For the first few years of their life orangutans rarely leave their mother – clinging to her while she moves through the trees. An orangutan is reliant on its mum for the first 8 years of its life – travelling with her, eating and resting in the same tree. This is a lot longer than most other mammals which is believed to be due to there being so much to learn before they can live alone successfully. And even once females become independent, they may regularly ‘visit’ their mothers until the age of 16.

orangutan and baby

Orangutans develop their baby teeth at around 5 months old and have 20 baby teeth, which is similar to when our first teeth make an appearance. Like us they have 32 permanent adult teeth and only get one set of molars but two sets of premolars. Read more about how our Chester Zoo orangutans’ dental health is helping orangutans in the wild.

orangutan teeth

Like humans, turning into a teenager is a very important time in the life of an orangutan as it is a time of marked growth and developmental change. From the age of 13 years male orangutans may develop flanges – which are also known as cheek pads. Female orangutans tend to reach maturity between 10 and 15 years old and reproduce every 6 to 8 years on average (Nowak 1999, Wich et al. in press).

Day to Day

There isn’t many of us who like spending time in the rain, getting soggy and wet – well, orangutans are the same. They make their own umbrellas to protect themselves from the elements. Ok, so it’s not quite an umbrella – but they cover up their heads with a construction they’ve made out of leaves, twigs or whatever else they can find!

orangutan 'umbrella'

Despite our similarities, there is one difference that does stand out, and that’s grooming! Social grooming, or allogrooming, is a social activity between members of the same species and is often a way of building a bond or a relationship. So, whilst most of us enjoy trip to the hairdressers, orangutans are solitary animals.

Like us orangutans lie down to sleep, you may think this is normal, but most other primates sleep in a sitting position. After building their nest at night they may even use a pillow or blanket for extra comfort – not the sort we’d use obviously, but it’s probably to ensure they get a better quality of rest.

orangutan 'nesting'

Orangutans have a preferred food – the fruit of the durian tree. You may already know that orangutans contribute to the dispersing of seeds, which helps towards the growth of a forest. But orangutans eat this particular fruit in the same way we would eat an orange: we get rid of the skin, eat the middle and spit out the seeds!

orangutan eating orange

That’s why orangutans are best described as ‘gardeners’ of the forest (Rijksen and Meijaard 1999); they play a vital role in seed dispersal, especially for large seeds that are not dispersed by smaller animals (Ancrenaz et al. 2006). Fruit availability in the Bornean forest directly impacts all aspects of their life: ranging patterns, seasonal movements, health, social and reproductive behaviour.

Becoming a parent

Adult male orangutans are in competition with one another for access to females. They use their throat pouches to produce a ‘long call’ – which sounds like a roar – to warn off other male rivals whilst also letting interested females know that they’re available. Adult male orangutans are intolerant of each other.

An orangutan’s gestation period is nine months and the gap between having another offspring is approximately 6-8 years which, compared with other mammals, is quite long.

Like us, infant orangutans are dependent on a parent for food and transportation – however male orangutans do not care for young, meaning young orangutans learn nearly everything from their mothers. This includes what to eat and where to find it, and how to build a nest.

We need your help to join us in supporting these amazing creatures before we lose them forever!

Support us by taking part in our Go Orange campaign – find out more here.