Very few animals have revealed an ability to consciously think about the future—behaviors such as storing food for the winter are often viewed as a function of instinct. Now a team of anthropologists at the University of Zurich has evidence that wild orangutans have the capacity to perceive the future, prepare for it and communicate those future plans to other orangutans.
The researchers observed 15 dominant male orangutans in Sumatra for several years. These males roam through immense swaths of dense jungle, emitting loud yells every couple of hours so that the females they mate with and protect can locate and follow them. The shouts also warn away any lesser males that might be in the vicinity. These vocalizations had been observed by primatologists before, but the new data reveal that the apes’ last daily call, an especially long howl, is aimed in the direction they will travel in the morning—and the other apes take note. The females stop moving when they hear this special 80-second call, bed down for the night, and in the morning begin traveling in the direction indicated the evening before.
The scientists believe that the dominant apes are planning their route in advance and communicating it to other orangutans in the area. They acknowledge, however, that the dominant males might not intend their long calls to have such an effect on their followers. Karin Isler, a Zurich anthropologist who co-authored the study in PLOS ONE last fall, explains, “We don’t know whether the apes are conscious. This planning does not have to be conscious. But it is also more and more difficult to argue that they [do not have] some sort of mind of their own.”
1 Capuchin monkeys appear to have a sense of fairness, insisting on receiving as good a food reward as their peers for performing the same job.
2 Scrub jays can relocate food that has been hidden for months and may even remember how long it has been stored. The jays also anticipate potential thefts and will relocate their food if they think another jay has spotted it.
3 Rhesus macaques will not pull a chain that brings them food if they think it will harm a fellow monkey.
4 Male voles may be able to predict when a female will be most fertile and, at the opportune time, revisit the location where she was last seen.
5 Bonobos and orangutans can use tools to retrieve food and then save their tools for later use.