Orangutans Are Better Than Children at Making Tools, Study Finds

Remarkably human-like, with the toolmaking abilities to show it.

orangutan momma
Getty ImagesZooBorns / Barcoft Images / Barcroft Media

Toolmaking is crucial for human survival, and our mammalian cousins have apparently picked up on its necessity. Orangutans surprised a group of human researchers recently when they were far more adept at creating fishhooks than previous studies indicated: The orangutans surveyed were nearly flawless, assembling the fishhooks correctly on their first attempts and besting a group of human children.

A team of cognitive biologists and comparative psychologists from Scotland's University of St. Andrews and Austria's University of Vienna and the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna tested the primate's abilities to create hook-bending tools.

For the study, published last week in , researchers presented the apes with a challenge, requiring them to fashion a hooked tool out of a straight piece of wire in order to retrieve a basket from the bottom of a vertical tube. A second challenge involved the opposite: a horizontal tube containing a reward at the center that was only retrievable via an unbent tool, which the animals again had to fashion themselves.

As the study's author Isabelle Laumer explained in a , the apes excelled.

"The orangutans mostly bent the hooks directly with their teeth and mouth while keeping the rest of the tool straight. Thereafter they immediately inserted it in correct orientation, hooked the handle and pulled the basket up," she said.

Also competing in the task were children aged three to eight, most of whom didn't fare as well. All of the children showed an excellent ability to imitate the process: They were able to follow along when given a demonstration of how to turn the basket into a hook. But when given a straight piece of wire, "only around 5 percent of the children under five years of age and only about 50 percent of the eight-year-old children were able to solve the problem," the study says.

Even though the children had all the knowledge available to solve their problem, their lack of cognitive abilities left them dangling on how to create the fishhook. Laumer cited the fact that "complex problem solving has been associated to certain areas of the medial prefrontal cortex, which mature later in the child development."

orangutan and new child
A mother orangutan and her newborn in Jardin des Plantes zoo in Paris on October 2018. Many orangutans are threatened in the wild by housing, mining, and shifting weather due to climate change.
Getty ImagesEric FEFERBERG / AFP

Meanwhile, the orangutans tested were able to complete the fishhook easily. Orangutans are "habitual" tool users in the wild, the study notes, but the ease with which some of them were able to complete this test was still surprising: The orangutans were given a 15-minute time limit on the trial. Only one of the adult females was able to solve it within two minutes.

"The orangutans mostly bent the hooks directly with their teeth and mouth while keeping the rest of the tool straight. Thereafter they immediately inserted it in correct orientation, hooked the handle and pulled the basket up," Laumer said.

Josep Call of the University of St. Andrews echoed Laumer's astonishment.

"Finding this capacity in one of our closest relatives is astonishing. In human evolution, hook tools appear relatively late. Fishhooks and harpoon-like, curved objects date back only approximately 16,000 to 60,000 years," he said. "This branch-hauling tool might represent one of the earliest and simplest raking tools used and made by great apes and our ancestors."

Some of the Bornean orangutans examined in the study are currently listed as by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, meaning they're one step above being extinct in the wild. Losing such a close ancestor would be a major loss for global biodiversity, an increasing concern for the planet.

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