People think humans are so special. Well, they're not. Any human behavior once thought "unique," has, mostly over the past 200 years or so, been systemically shown to exist in the animal kingdom. Pavlov showed that pigeons could learn and even problem solve. Bugs learn too. Birds and apes use tools. Bees have a language. Elephants can paint!. And, it turns out, orangutan's are old-fashioned carpenters, just like Jesus.
Adam Van Casteren and a team of researchers from Georgia State found that orangutans build their treetop beds using some pretty sophisticated behaviors that include judging the strength of branches, using bigger branches for the foundation of the bed and smaller ones for the "mattress," and even sleeping under big leafy blankets. They write:
During construction orangutans use the fact that branches only break half-way across in "greenstick" fracture to weave the main nest structure. They choose thicker branches with greater rigidity and strength to build the main structure in this way. They then detach thinner branches by following greenstick fracture with a twisting action to make the lining. These results suggest that orangutans exhibit a degree of technical knowledge and choice in the construction of nests.
I can only imagine the sweet orangutan dreams dreamt here. Do they mate in these?
By using different kinds of trees, the apes seem to have an understanding of the wood dimensions necessary for both safety and comfort. Pretty sophisticated.
Leading theories about the evolution of human intelligence often focus on one of two main evolutionary themes: the social environment and the mechanical environment. Basically, keeping the complex dynamics of a tight-knit social group together demands a certain level of smarts, as does understanding the properties of objects in three dimensions and manipulating them for specific purposes (i.e. butchering meat).
Stone tools and tight social groups were both huge adaptations in humans, and likely both main players in the evolution of human of our superlative intelligence. This orangutan study, along with other studies on primate tool use, suggest that great apes have probably also evolved to understand some simple object mechanics in a fashion similar to early human ancestors.
I'll leave with this video of an orangutan building his bed so you can see his human-like sense of construction work, bored pauses and all.
video and images courtesy of Adam van Casteren
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