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Orangutans on Borneo are observed using tools to catch fish

Posted May 10 2011 12:00am
Mother and baby orangutan at a refuge on Borneo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Field researcher Anne Russon of York University in Toronto monitored orangutan behavior from 2004 to 2007 on the Indonesian island of Borneo. She observed orangutans scavenging fish that had washed up along shores. She also saw them grabbing live catfish out of small ponds. The orangutans immediately ate the fish.

In 2007, Russon stocked a small pond with catfish and videotaped orangutan visits to this pond. She reported that several of the red apes learned on their own to jab at catfish with sticks, provoking the fish to flop out of the ponds within reach. The orangutans then ate them.

Using sticks to frighten fish out of ponds qualifies as "tool use," an ability that was once thought to be unique to humans. Other primates and crows have also been observed using tools to obtain food, and sometimes making tools. Chimps have been filmed making spears to stab and remove small primates from treeholes  and then eat them. (The spears are made by sharpening sticks with their teeth.) Chimps also use sticks to remove termites from holes to eat.

If any of you readers can tell me other observations of meat-eating or tool-use in orangutans, I'd like to know.

Russon reported her observations of orangutans catching fish at the 'American Association of Physical Anthropologists' meeting in Minneapolis on April 14, 2011.

For further reading on primate conservation and behavior, and my observations of wild orangutans on Borneo and Sumatra, check out some of my earlier primate posts
Some of my earlier posts about primates:
Orangutans are lefties; chimps and gorillas are right handed April 14, 2011
Trade a major threat to primate survival March 21, 2011
We are family: new evidence of our close link to chimps Feb 16, 2011
Is males' attraction to trucks and balls genetically based? Jan 14, 2011
Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss Dec 6, 2010
Wildlife trade rivals drug trade in profits September 20, 2010
Laws flaunted: flourishing pet trade threatens orangutans' survival August 23, 2010
My search for a wild orangutan in Borneo and Sumatra August 16, 2010
Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations August 3, 2010
The great apes are losing ground March, 2010
The U.S. imports 20,000 primates per year . February, 2010
Baboons are Africa's most widespread primate. Females rule! December 30, 2009
Mama monkeys give in to tantrums....when others are watching . April 23, 2009
Angry chimp reveals a "uniquely human" ability . March 21, 2009
Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle . September, 2008
Chimps' short-term memory is better than humans'   April 2, 2008
Chimps share human trait of altruism August 3, 2007

Some of my previous posts about tool use in wildlife:
Animals making tools...what else are they capable of? May 28, 2009
Wild monkeys use tools...and choose the right one Feb 20, 2009
We're not so unique: Research shows birds have human qualities . Oct 18, 2007
Dolphins learn tool use from their moms . April 27, 2007

Keywords: orangutan orangutans Borneo Indonesia tool use Anne Russon York University Toronto orangutans catching fish orangutans eating fish apes eating fish
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