Friday, November 19, 2010

Orangutan Mimes

Can orangutans talk? Maybe not verbally but they can mime their needs to other orangutans or even humans. By miming actions they can illustrate to others that they need help. Anne Russon who has been studying these animals for years has seen instances of these types of behaviors on multiple occasions. In one instance an orangutan was attempting to open a coconut and mimed to the researcher the correct way he could help him open it. The actual video of this behavior is shown in the video below.

A young orangutan pantomimes for help with a coconut from Science News on Vimeo.
It is interesting that they do this but why is it important? This behavior is thought to be a human trait but these orangutans do it as well. This further indicates the similarities between humans and apes and shows the possibility that this miming was the beginnings of human language.
The use of miming is still used in humans in gestures such as hailing a cab and waving. These orangutans have the ability to say many of the things humans speak out loud using mime and can even communicate with humans. This along with other apes being able to communicate nonverbally indicates that this probably did not evolve uniquely in humans.
Listen to the Quirks and Quarks segment here:
orangutan mime quirks and quarks


  1. I always read stories of apes and chimps miming and using sign language but are they only used what they are taught? Can they carry a conversation formed by themselves or only what they are taught?

  2. I hope you don't mind that I embedded the video directly in your post.
    @Jake - good question. To what extent is this behavior occurring naturally in these populations. It is like meowing in domestic cats. They do this to talk to humans, not to other cats.

  3. Thanks for embedding that for me I couldnt figure out how.
    The woman who did this study also told a story of watching one orangutan mime to another that it was okay to have something to eat by making a point of himself eating. Whether this was something he learned from humans and then transferred into talking to others in his group I am not sure

  4. This may be similar to the animals that understand how to use tools for problem solving without being trained by humans to do so. But of course things get more difficult if you look at psychological studies where "wild children" cannot speak any inteligible human language until someone teaches them how. Speech may not be a "human" characteristic unless the young learns it from an adult. But if both humans and orangutan can mime without being taught then miming is definitely not a trait restricted to humans.