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Old 01-03-2003, 09:48 AM   #1
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Another Cultured Ape...This Time With Red Hair

Another cultured ape, this time with red hair
Orangutans share behaviour in group Using leaf `napkin' just one example


NEW YORK—Orangutans, those red-haired knuckle-dragging apes, are loping into the upper echelons of the primate hierarchy.

According to research reported in the journal Science, they exhibit what was until very recently considered a uniquely human attribute: culture.

Drawing on decades of research and hundreds of thousands of hours of observations from six different sites in the wild, an international team of scientists found evidence that orangutan groups differ in everything from bedtime rituals to eating habits to sexual practices — patterns of behaviour, learned from being around others in a group, that scientists call culture. Other researchers reported four years ago that chimpanzees exhibited widespread cultural differences.

Chimps also differ in the way they groom, hunt, eat and so on.

Scientists say the new work suggests the two remaining great ape species, gorillas and bonobos, are likely to have culture, too, and that great ape culture may date back at least to the origin of the entire group 14 million years ago.

The finding is of particular interest because wild orangutans have long been thought to be loners, leaving little possibility for the creation of culture.

Yet researchers found that, at one site, all orangutans gave a Bronx cheer before going to sleep, while at others, this ritual was absent. In some forests, orangutans had a characteristic way of hunting and killing the slow loris, or extracting seeds from the stinging fruit of the Neesia tree; yet in other forests, where the loris and Neesia were found, orangutans never took these meals. And, while in two forests, orangutans enjoyed masturbation using sticks, elsewhere such behaviour was unheard of.

As happens whenever scientists aim to award prized attributes of Homo sapiens to other, wilder creatures, there has been heated reaction.

Though unlikely, some suggest it's possible that orangutans behave differently at different sites because of undetected differences in their forest habitat.

Some scientists also object, on principle, to use of the heavily freighted term culture, which long has been used to denote something peculiarly human.

More research on orangutan culture may be difficult, however, because the species as a whole is threatened as people steadily encroach on its habitats.

Others suggested that great ape cultures were just some among many involving other species.

"In the coming 20 years, we will have a host of studies on culture in all sorts of animals," said Frans de Waal, primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, noting data coming in is suggesting cultural differences among rats, birds and even fish. "We will not think of culture as a monolithic thing, but a concept that includes songbirds, the great apes and human culture.''

The study grew out of a workshop, which gathered orangutan researchers who had worked for years in isolation from each another at six remote sites on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the only places orangutans can be found in the wild.

Only one of the six groups has discovered how to use sticks to extract insects from tree holes or to wedge seeds from fruits.

Such tool use is common among chimpanzees but the Sumatran orangutans put a unique twist on the practice — they grip the stick with their teeth, not their hands.

"You know your own animals and all of them do particular things," said Carel van Schaik, biological anthropologist at Duke University in North Carolina and lead author of the study. "So you think all orangutans do these things. Nobody thought there'd be so much variation between the sites.''

Dainty use of a napkin has been discovered by one band in Borneo, Routinely, they wipe their faces with leaves and parents teach the skill to their young.

Altogether, the researchers found 24 examples of behaviours routinely practised by at least one of the groups and taught to new generations. Twelve other behaviours, including making a pillow with twigs, were seen only rarely or practiced by only a single individual.

"Developing this culture is indicative that their cognitive level is very high," said Birute Galdikas, a co-author and researcher with Orangutan International Foundation, who has studied the red-haired apes in the wild for 30 years.

"Orangutans are as intelligent as chimpanzees and gorillas, but they have a different kind of mentality and personality,'' she told Associated Press.

This "tells us that the capacity to develop culture is very ancient."

Van Schaik said there was no evidence of ecological differences or genetic differences that would lead to such differences in behaviour.

In addition, at sites where orangutans spent more time together, there were more of these widespread behaviours, as would be expected with behaviours spread through association. In addition, the closer sites were to each other, the more behaviours those sites shared.

Bennett Galef, animal behaviourist at Hamilton's McMaster University, cautioned that it can be difficult to decipher what causes differences in behaviour in the wild.

In a classic example, chimpanzees are known to use very different methods for extracting ants from ant nests in eastern and western Africa. But in one new study, researchers reported finding a group of chimpanzees that use either method — depending on how aggressive the ant they are hunting is.

Galef said the finding suggests even this classic chimp cultural divide might have an ecological explanation as simple as the difference in ants available in different areas.

Galef said the only way, definitively, to answer many of the key remaining questions will be through field experiments.

Unfortunately, researchers say some of the newly uncovered cultures already may have been destroyed.

Van Schaik said one site in Sumatra, home of the goodnight Bronx cheer and the hunting of the slow loris, has been devastated for the past several years by an intense wave of illegal logging, despite being within a national park.

Another of his long-term study sites in Borneo has been devastated by civil war and returning there is still too dangerous.

Even if he were able to go back, Van Schaik said, "Probably all the orangutans we knew there are gone.''

Sadly, loss of habitat in Southeast Asia and other problems have pushed the orangutan toward extinction.

Galdikas said 90 per cent of the ape population has disappeared in 50 years and only 15,000 to 20,000 are left in the wild.
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