Locals know how to eat

To find the choicest menu options, migrant male orangutans watch how the locals eat

July 05, 2023

Max Planck researchers analyzed 30 years of observations on a total of 152 male migrant orangutans on Sumatra and Borneo and showed that migrants learn about unfamiliar foods in their new home range by ‘peering’ at experienced locals. Peering—the act of intensely observing others at close distance—was most frequently seen in migrants when they observed locals consuming foods that were rare or hard to process. The study by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, and Leipzig University was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Orangutans are dependent on their mothers longer than any other non-human animal, nursing until they are at least six years old and living with her for up to three more years. In that time, they learn how to find, choose, and process the exceedingly varied range of foods that orangutans eat. But when orangutans leave their mothers to live outside their natal range, where the available foods may be very different, how do they decide what to eat and learn how to eat it? Now, an international team of authors has shown that in such cases, migrants follow the rule ‘observe, and do as the locals do’.

“Here we show evidence that migrant orangutan males use observational social learning to learn new ecological knowledge from local individuals after dispersing to a new area,” says Julia Mörchen, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Leipzig University, in Germany, and the study’s lead author. “Our results suggest that migrant males not only learn where to find food and what to feed on from locals, but also continue to learn how to process these new foods.”

Mörchen and colleagues showed that migrant males learn this information through a behaviour called ‘peering’: intensely observing for at least five seconds and from within two metres at a role model. Typically, peering orangutans faced the role model and showed signs of following his or her actions with head movements, indicating attentive interest.

Male orangutans migrate to another area after becoming independent, while females tend to settle close to their natal home range. “What we don’t yet know is how far orangutan males disperse, or where they disperse to. But it’s possible to make informed guesses: genetic data and observations of orangutans crossing physical barriers such as rivers and mountains suggest long-distance dispersal, likely over tens of kilometres,” says Mörchen.

“This implies that during migration, males likely come across several habitat types and thus experience a variety of faunistic compositions, especially when crossing through habitats of different altitudes. Over evolutionary time, being able to quickly adapt to novel environments by attending to crucial information from locals, likely provided individuals with a survival advantage. As a result, this ability is likely ancestral in our hominin lineage, reaching back between at least 12 and 14 million years to the last common ancestor we share with orangutans.”

The team examined data from two orangutan populations: Bornean orangutans from Tuanan research station on the island of Borneo, and Sumatran orangutans from Suaq Balimbing Research Station on the island of Sumatra. In the highly sociable Sumatran orangutan population, migrant males most frequently peered at local females followed by local juveniles, and least at adult males. In the less sociable population of Bornean orangutans, the opposite held: migrant males most frequently peered at adult males, followed by immature orangutans, and least at adult females. Migrant Bornean males may lack opportunities to peer at local females, as females are known to avoid long associations with them in this population. Migrant males then interacted more frequently with the peered-at food afterwards, putting into practice what they had learned through peering.

“Our detailed analyses further showed that the migrant orangutan males in our study peered most frequently at food items that are difficult to process, or which are only rarely eaten by the locals: including foods that were only recorded being eaten for a few minutes over the entire study period,” says Anja Widdig, a professor at Leipzig University and co-senior author of the study.

“Interestingly, the peering rates of migrant males decreased after a couple of months in the new area, which implies that this is how long it takes them to learn about new foods,” added Caroline Schuppli, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, and co-senior author.

The authors cautioned that it is still unknown how many times adult orangutans need to peer at a particular behaviour before mastering it themselves. Observations suggest that depending on the complexity or novelty of the learned skill, adults may still use explorative behaviours on certain food items they first learned about through peering – possibly to figure out more details, strengthen and memorize the new information, or to compare the latter with previous knowledge.

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