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Orangutans Use Mime to Make Their Point

by Terence Neilan

Aug. 11, 2010 -- Maybe orangutans are more like people than we thought. No, they don't speak like humans, but there's something else they do that's just like us: They mime when they really want to get their message across.

After analyzing about 20 years of videos capturing images in the preserved forests of Indonesian Borneo, two Canadian researchers have concluded that our primal cousins often use gestures to explain what they mean.

They found 18 recorded scenes in which orangutans were miming to explain something to a human or a fellow orangutan, sometimes even to mislead or distract them.

When the other party doesn't get it, "the orangutans get a look on their faces like, 'Are you stupid?'" one of the co-authors of the study, professor Anne Russon, told Science News.

A young orangutan pantomimes for help with a coconut from Science News on Vimeo.

On another occasion, a male called Cecep handed Russon a leaf, but "I played dumb" about what he wanted, she said.

"He waited a respectable few seconds, then -- all the while looking me in the eye -- he took back the leaf, rubbed it on his own forehead," and then handed it back to her.

At this point, Russon said, "I did as I was told" and wiped away dirt from the animal's head.

On another occasion, an orangutan called Cindy saw a conservationist carrying an umbrella. After holding out her hand as if she wanted it, to which the conservationist didn't respond, Cindy picked up a leaf and held it over her head in a mimicking way.

Then she offered the leaf to the conservationist and tried to take the umbrella in return, showing her real intent, the BBC reported.

The study, by Russon and fellow author Kristin Andrews of York University in Toronto, is published online by the Biology Letters journal.

"Great apes' ability to engage in rudimentary narrative communications suggests to us that, like humans, they are able to make sense of their world by telling stories, and to relay their thoughts about the world to others," Andrews is quoted as saying in The Guardian.

One orangutan indicated to researchers that he wanted a haircut, but the ape was actually trying to distract their attention in order to steal something, The Guardian said.

Scientists had previously thought that only humans were capable of using mime, but Russon told the BBC, "Orangutans and other great apes have more sophisticated communicative abilities than currently believed."

More importantly, perhaps, understanding how apes communicate could lead to an understanding of how human language evolved.

"For great apes, like humans, pantomime is a medium, not a message," the study says.



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