Orangutans share 97% similar DNA with humans, and their name means “person of the forest” in Malay. Like humans, orangutans have opposable thumbs and additionally, their big toes are also opposable. They use their strong grip to climb through trees and hang on to branches for hours. With arms that are actually longer than their legs, swinging from branch to branch is a piece of cake. These great apes spend a lot of their time in trees, and they are classified as the world’s largest arboreal animal. They are also the only great apes in Asia.
Male orangutans can have pads on their cheeks, called flanges. These males are the leaders of the group and are very protective against any threats. The males with flanges tend to be about twice the size of the females, but there are males without flanges, too. They are usually around the same size as the females. Scientists are unsure as to why males might have flanges while others don’t, but whatever the case, the female orangutans find them attractive, which explains their evolutionary origins.
It was once thought that the flanges appeared upon reaching maturity, but they usually grow around the age of 15, and male orangutans are mature around 10 years old. The presence of flanged males within a certain geography may suppress the growth of flanges in other males nearby. Further adding to the mystery is the fact that the flanges may disappear after a few years.
Something which makes orangutans unique from the other great apes is that they are only semi-social. They prefer to live alone, but will communicate and spend time with others.
Females reproduce only once every eight years, which is highly unusual. They typically have only one baby at a time, although there will occasionally be twins. For the first three to four years of life, the baby clings onto their mother as they move around through the trees. The babies continue to stay with their mother for about seven years, and the mother and child share a close bond.
Orangutans are great problem-solvers and learn easily from humans. For example, they can unlock doors after watching a human do it a few times. However, they think in a way which has been demonstrated to be different from other great apes. When they are given a peg to put in a hole with the same shape, chimpanzees try putting it in every hole on the board until they find the right one. Orangutans, on the other hand, seem to not care about the problem (and maybe they don’t) but usually put it in the right hole on the first try, apparently without much effort.
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