Culture – Not Just for Humans

It is now generally accepted that all of the family Hominidae (which includes bonobos, chimps, gorillas, orangutans and humans) display cultural variation.  This is behaviour which has been learned from their mother or other members of a group (social learning) and differs between populations (groups and/or areas), even when the animals’ genes and environments are very similar.

For orangutans, this may include learning which plants to eat and how to call their young ones back; using a ‘leaf glove’ to handle prickly fruits; cleaning their hands with moss or a leaf; or making a stick tool to reach some honey from a bees’ nest.

However, when orangutans are forced to live closely together they don’t interact as much because they are stressed.  Consequently, learning is not shared so widely.  This means they are less able to adapt to change and cope in times of difficulty.  For example finding ‘fallback’ food; this is food that isn’t so good but is okay when the usual food plants cannot be found.  This is happening now as a result of deforestation (cutting down natural forests to plant crops for humans).  According to the IUCN, all of the great apes (except humans) are either Endangered or Critically Endangered. 

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