Orangutan leaf-carrying for nest-building: Toward unraveling cultural processes

Abstract

We report an empirical study on leaf-carrying, a newly discovered nest-building technique that involves collecting nest materials before reaching the nest site. We assessed whether leaf-carrying by rehabilitant orangutans on Kaja Island, Central Kalimantan, owes to cultural influences. Findings derive from ca 600 h observational data on nesting skills and nesting associations in Kaja’s 42 resident rehabilitants, which yielded 355 nests and 125 leaf-carrying cases by 34 rehabilitants. Regional contrasts with 14 other communities (7 rehabilitant, 7 wild) indicated cultural influences on leaf-carrying on Kaja. Association data showed exceptional social learning opportunities for leaf-carrying on Kaja, with residents taking differential advantage of these opportunities as a function of development, experience, and social position. Juvenile males with basic nesting skills were most influenced by social input. Most (27) leaf-carriers had probably learned leaf-carrying when caged and 7 probably learned it on Kaja. Social priming was probably the main impetus to leaf-carrying on Kaja, by simply prompting observers to copy when leaf-carrying associates collected nesting materials, what they collected, and where they used their collected materials. Implications concern acquisition processes and ontogenetic schedules that orchestrate sets of features—needs or interests, cognitive abilities, social preferences—which enable cultural transmission.

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Acknowledgements

Studies of rehabilitant orangutans were authorized by Indonesia’s Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and sponsored by the Research Institute of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, Samarinda, E. Kalimantan, Indonesia, the TROPENBOS Foundation of the Netherlands, the BOS Foundation, and the Orangutan Reintroduction Projects at Wanariset and Nyaru Menteng. Glendon College and York University in Toronto, Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation of the USA provided funding support for the research. The logistical support, archives, and staff assistance provided by the Orangutan Reintroduction Project at Nyaru Menteng were invaluable contributors to the Pulau Kaja study. Comparative facets of this study would not have been possible without input and comments by Marc Ancrenaz, Raffaella Commitante, Lone Droscher-Nielsen, Andrea Gibson, Simon Husson, Emilie Kissler, Cheryl Knott, Isabelle Lackman-Ancrenaz, Helen Morrogh-Bernard, Peter Pratje, Ian Singleton, Dhany Sitaparasti, Maria van Noordwijk, Carel van Schaik, Sri Suci Utami, and Serge Wich. We are grateful to four anonymous reviewers for comments on a previous draft of the paper. This study complies with the current laws of the country in which it was undertaken.

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Correspondence to Anne E. Russon.

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Russon, A.E., Handayani, D.P., Kuncoro, P. et al. Orangutan leaf-carrying for nest-building: Toward unraveling cultural processes. Anim Cogn 10, 189–202 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-006-0058-z

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Keywords

  • Orangutans
  • Cultures
  • Nesting