Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 70, Issue 4, pp 459–466 | Cite as

The dark side of the red ape: male-mediated lethal female competition in Bornean orangutans

  • Anna M. MarzecEmail author
  • Julia A. Kunz
  • Sonja Falkner
  • Sri Suci Utami Atmoko
  • Shauhin E. Alavi
  • Alysse M. Moldawer
  • Erin R. Vogel
  • Caroline Schuppli
  • Carel P. van Schaik
  • Maria A. van Noordwijk
Original Article


Female Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) are mainly solitary and philopatric, leading to adult female relatives sharing adjacent and overlapping home ranges. Females tend to be intolerant of unrelated females, with whom they also may have overlapping home ranges. However, fights that lead to injuries are extremely rare and lethal aggression had never been observed. Here, we report the first case of lethal female-female aggression during over 26,000 h of focal data collected on adult females at Tuanan, Central Kalimantan: A young female, who had recently lost her infant, attacked an old resident female. The interaction’s unique feature was that the attacking female was supported by an unflanged male, who had been in consort with her during the week preceding the attack and was responsible for the lethal injuries to the victim. The victim received protection from a flanged male who was probably attracted to the noise generated by the fight. We conclude that even in a species in which coercion is frequently observed in male-female interactions, female leverage over males can coax males into providing services, such as coalitionary support.


Orangutan Lethal aggression Coalitionary attack Female-female competition Male support 



We gratefully acknowledge the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), the Indonesian State Ministry for Research and Technology (RISTEK), the Director General Departemen Kehutanan (PHKA), Departamen Dalam Negri, the local government in Central Kalimantan, the BKSDA Palangkaraya, the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), and the MAWAS in Palangkaraya for their permission and support to conduct this research. We also thank the Fakultas Biologi Universitas Nasional (UNAS) in Jakarta for their collaboration and support for the Tuanan project and in particular Dr. Tatang Mitra Setia. We are indebted to the Tuanan field team for their contribution to data collection, in particular Pak Rahmatd, Pak Yandi, Tono, Idun, Kumpo, Suwi, Abuk, and Wilhelm Osterman as well as many local and foreign students and their financial supporters. For major financial support, we thank the University of Zurich, the A.H. Schultz Stiftung, Philadelphia Zoo, as well as USAID (APS-497-11-000001 to E.R.V.). This research complied with the current national laws of Indonesia. We also thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.

Compliance with ethical standards

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.


This study was funded by the University of Zurich (grant number not available), A.H. Schultz-Stiftung zur Förderung Primatologischer Forschung (grant number not available), United States Agency for International Development (USA) (APS-497-11-000001), and Philadelphia Zoo (grant number not available).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Supplementary material

265_2015_2053_MOESM1_ESM.docx (36 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 35 kb)


  1. Arora N, van Noordwijk MA, Ackermann C et al (2012) Parentage-based pedigree reconstruction reveals female matrilineal clusters and male-biased dispersal in nongregarious Asian great apes, the Bornean orang-utans (Pongo pygmaeus). Mol Ecol 21:3352–3362CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Ashbury A (2013) Not all who wander are lost: the socio-spatial dynamics of home range establishment among young female orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) at Tuanan. MSc Thesis, University of ZurichGoogle Scholar
  3. Ashbury AM, Posa MRC, Dunkel LP, Spillmann B, Utami Atmoko SS, van Schaik CP, van Noordwijk MA (2015) Why do orangutans leave the trees? Terrestrial behavior among wild Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) at Tuanan, Central Kalimantan. Am J Primatol 77:1216–1229CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Campbell CJ (2006) Lethal intragroup aggression by adult male spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi). Am J Primatol 68:1197–1201CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Dunkel LP, Arora N, van Noordwijk MA, Utami Atmoko SS, Putra AP, Krützen M, van Schaik CP (2013) Variation in developmental arrest among male orangutans: a comparison between a Sumatran and a Bornean population. Front Zool 10:12CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  6. Edwards SD, Snowdon CT (1980) Social behavior of captive, group-living orangutans. Int J Primatol 1:39–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Fox EA (2002) Female tactics to reduce sexual harassment in the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus abelii). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 52:93–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Goodall J (1986) The chimpanzees of gombe. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  9. Gouzoules H (1980) A description of genealogical rank changes in a troop of Japanese monkeys (Macaca fuscata). Primates 21:262–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gros-Louis J, Perry S, Manson J (2003) Violent coalitionary attacks and intraspecific killing in wild white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus). Primates 44:341–346CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Husson SJ, Wich SA, Marshall AJ et al (2009) Orangutan distribution, density, abundance and impacts of disturbance. In: Wich SA, Utami Atmoko SS, Mitra Setia T, van Schaik CP (eds) Orangutans: geographic variation in behavioral ecology and conservation. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 77–96Google Scholar
  12. Knott CD (1998) Orangutans in the wild. National Geographic, Accessed 14 Aug 2015
  13. Knott CD, Beaudrot L, Snaith T, White S, Tschauner H, Planansky G (2008) Female-female competition in Bornean orangutans. Int J Primatol 29:975–997CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Knott CD, Thompson E, Stumpf MR, McIntyre MH (2010) Female reproductive strategies in orangutans, evidence for female choice and counterstrategies to infanticide in a species with frequent sexual coercion. Proc R Soc Lond B 277:105–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kunz JA (2015) Ontogeny and variability of play behaviour in wild, immature Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) and Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii). MSc Thesis, University of ZurichGoogle Scholar
  16. Lewis RJ (2002) Beyond dominance: the importance of leverage. Q Rev Biol 77:149–164CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Marty PR, Cadilek M, Dunkel LP, Agil M, Heistermann M, Willems EP, van Noordwijk MA, Weingrill T (2015) Endocrinological morrelates of male bimaturism in wild Bornean orangutans. Am J Primatol 77:1170–1178CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Miller L (1998) Fatal attack among wedge-capped bapuchins. Folia Primatol 69:89–92CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Mitani JC, Watts DP, Amsler SJ (2010) Lethal intergroup aggression leads to territorial expansion in wild chimpanzees. Curr Biol 20:R507–R508CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Mitra Setia T, Delgado RA, Utami Atmoko SS, Singleton I, van Schaik CP (2009) Social organization and male-female relationships. In: Wich SA, Utami Atmoko SS, Mitra Setia T, van Schaik CP (eds) Orangutans: geographic variation in behavioral ecology and conservation. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 235–244Google Scholar
  21. Morrogh-Bernard H, Morf N, Chivers D, Krützen M (2011) Dispersal patterns of orang-utans (Pongo spp.) in a Bornean peat-swamp forest. Int J Primatol 32:362–376CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Palombit RA (1993) Lethal territorial aggression in a white-handed gibbon. Am J Primatol 31:311–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Scarry CJ, Tujague MP (2012) Consequences of lethal intragroup aggression and alpha male replacement on intergroup relations and home range use in tufted capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella nigritus). Am J Primatol 74:804–810CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Seyfarth RM (1978) Social relationships among adult male and female baboons. I. Behaviour during sexual consortship. Behaviour 64:204–226CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Singleton I, van Schaik CP (2002) The social organisation of a population of Sumatran orang-utans. Folia Primatol 73:1–20CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Starin ED (1994) Philopatry and affiliation among red colobus. Behaviour 130:253–270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Tajima T, Kurotori H (2010) Nonaggressive interventions by third parties in conflicts among captive Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). Primates 51:179–182CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Talebi MG, Beltrão-Mendes R, Lee PC (2009) Intra-community coalitionary lethal attack of an adult male southern muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides). Am J Primatol 71:860–867CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Utami Atmoko SS, Singleton I, van Noordwijk MA, van Schaik CP, Mitra Setia T (2009) Male-male relationships in orangutans. In: Wich SA, Utami Atmoko SS, Mitra Setia T, van Schaik CP (eds) Orangutans: geographic variation in behavioral ecology and conservation. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 225–233Google Scholar
  30. Valero A, Schaffner CM, Vick LG, Aureli F, Ramos-Fernandez G (2006) Intragroup lethal aggression in wild spider monkeys. Am J Primatol 68:732–737CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. van Noordwijk MA, van Schaik CP (2009) Intersexual food transfer among orangutans: do females test males for coercive tendency? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 63:883–890CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. van Noordwijk MA, Arora N, Willems EP, Dunkel LP, Amda RN, Mardianah N, Ackermann C, Krützen M, Schaik CP (2012) Female philopatry and its social benefits among Bornean orangutans. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 66:823–834CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. van Noordwijk MA, Willems EP, Utami Atmoko SS, Kuzawa C, van Schaik CP (2013) Multi-year lactation and its consequences in Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 67:805–814CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. van Schaik CP (1999) The socioecology of fission-fusion sociality in orangutans. Primates 40:69–86CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. van Schaik CP (2000) Infanticide by male primates: the sexual selection hypothesis revisited. In: van Schaik CP, Janson CH (eds) Infanticide by males and its implications. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 27–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. van Schaik CP, Wich SA, Utami SS, Odom K (2005) A simple alternative to line transects of nests for estimating orangutan densities. Primates 46:249–254CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Wartmann FM, Purves RS, van Schaik CP (2010) Modelling ranging behaviour of female orang-utans: a case study in Tuanan, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Primates 51:119–130CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Wich S, Sterck E (2007) Familiarity and threat of opponents determine variation in Thomas langur (Presbytis thomasi) male behaviour during between-group encounters. Behaviour 144:1583–1598CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wich SA, de Vries H, Ancrenaz M, Perkins L, Shumaker RW, Suzuki A, van Schaik CP (2009) Orangutan life history variation. In: Wich SA, Utami Atmoko SS, Mitra Setia T, van Schaik CP (eds) Orangutans: geographic variation in behavioral ecology and conservation. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 65–75Google Scholar
  40. Wilson EO (1975) Sociobiology. Belknap, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  41. Wilson ML, Boesch C, Fruth B et al (2014) Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts. Nature 513:414–417CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Wrangham RW (1999) Evolution of coalitionary killing. Yearb Phys Anthropol 42:1–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Wrangham RW, Glowacki L (2012) Intergroup aggression in chimpanzees and war in Nomadic hunter-gatherers. Evaluating the chimpanzee model. Hum Nat 23:5–29CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Zucker EL (1987) Control of intragroup aggression by a captive male orangutan. Zoo Biol 6:219–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anna M. Marzec
    • 1
    Email author
  • Julia A. Kunz
    • 1
  • Sonja Falkner
    • 1
  • Sri Suci Utami Atmoko
    • 2
  • Shauhin E. Alavi
    • 3
  • Alysse M. Moldawer
    • 3
  • Erin R. Vogel
    • 3
  • Caroline Schuppli
    • 1
  • Carel P. van Schaik
    • 1
  • Maria A. van Noordwijk
    • 1
  1. 1.Anthropological Institute and MuseumUniversity of ZurichZürichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Universitas Nasional JakartaJakartaIndonesia
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyRutgers, The State University of New JerseyNew BrunswickUSA

Personalised recommendations