Social Ties Boost Orangutan Curiosity, New Study Shows

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Intrigue and caution, it seems, go hand in hand in the wild world of orangutans. Recent research published in Scientific Reports has shed new light on the behavioral patterns of these great apes, revealing an intriguing dichotomy between their responses to novelty in captivity versus the wild. This study, which is the first of its kind to examine orangutan behavior towards unfamiliar objects in their natural habitat, focuses on a group of human-habituated orangutans residing in a Sumatra reserve.

In captivity, great apes are known for their curiosity, spending substantial time exploring new objects. However, in the wild, the story seems to be quite different. In a series of carefully orchestrated experiments at Suaq Balimbing, a protected biodiversity area in Sumatra, scientists discovered that the orangutans exhibited a marked caution towards new items. These findings challenge previous assumptions and open up fascinating new avenues for understanding the evolutionary roots of human curiosity.

Orangutans In The Wild Exhibit Cautious Curiosity, Reveals Study

A recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports has shed light on the contrasting behaviors of great apes in captivity and the wild, particularly focusing on orangutans’ responses to novelty. The research, which is the first of its kind to measure this behavior in wild orangutans, was conducted in a Sumatra reserve, home to human-habituated orangutans.

Captivity versus Wild: A Study in Curiosity

Great apes, when in captivity, tend to spend considerable time exploring new objects. However, researchers had limited knowledge about how this curiosity manifests in the wild. Attempts to replicate this exercise in the wild, specifically at Suaq Balimbing, a protected biodiversity area in Sumatra, had previously failed. The orangutans showed a heightened sense of caution towards unfamiliar objects, making the initial experiments unsuccessful.

Sweetening the Deal

In a bid to pique the orangutans’ interest, the biologists innovatively used a piece of tree trunk filled with local forest honey, a familiar yet intriguingly novel object, and observed the apes’ reactions during 170 trials. The methods the orangutans used to express their curiosity varied by age. Immature orangutans were found to observe the object significantly longer – an average of 233 seconds, compared to 103 seconds for mothers and 34 seconds for sexually mature males. They were also quicker to approach the object, often showing agitation in the process.

Social Influence and Human Evolution

The study revealed that the apes seldom touched the branch directly, often using tools like sticks. The likelihood of approach was also less in areas with abundant food. Interestingly, the presence of an accompanying ape increased the likelihood of approach and interaction with the object.

Caroline Schuppli, director of the orangutan research project at Suaq Balimbing and the first author of the study, believes these results could help us understand the evolution of human curiosity. She states, "We often think of learning and innovation as solo acts, but this might not have been the case in our early history. If novelty was the spark, then our social lives might have provided the accelerant."


This study not only provides insights into the behavior of orangutans in the wild but also hints at the social origins of curiosity and innovation in humans. It underscores the importance of social connections in influencing curiosity and the role of novelty in stimulating learning and innovation. The cautious approach of the orangutans also underlines an inherent survival instinct that guides their interaction with unfamiliar objects.

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