A young male orangutan makes the 30-metre climb up the thickest root of the strangler fig high above the canopy in Gunung Palung national park, one of the few protected orangutan strongholds in Indonesian Borneo. Laman had to do three days of climbing to position several GoPro cameras that he could trigger remotely. This shot was the one he had long visualised, looking down on the orangutan within its forest home. Photograph: Tim Laman
The animal has been studied for some time, but new research confirms it is different from all other gibbons.
It has been named the Skywalker hoolock gibbon - partly because the Chinese characters of its scientific name mean “Heaven’s movement” but also because the scientists are fans of Star Wars.
The study is published in the American Journal of Primatology. Dr Sam Turvey, from the Zoological Society of London, who was part of the team studying the apes, told BBC News: “In this area, so many species have declined or gone extinct because of habitat loss, hunting and general human overpopulation.
"So it’s an absolute privilege to see something as special and as rare as a gibbon in a canopy in a Chinese rainforest, and especially when it turns out that the gibbons are actually a new species previously unrecognised by science.”
Hoolock gibbons are found in Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar. They spend most of their time living in the treetops, swinging through the forests with their forelimbs, rarely spending any time on the ground.
But the research team - led by Fan Peng-Fei from Sun Yat-sen University in China - started to suspect that the animals they were studying in China’s Yunnan Province were unusual.
All hoolock gibbons have white eyebrows and some have white beards - but the Chinese primates’ markings differed in appearance. Their songs, which they use to bond with other gibbons and to mark out their territory, also had an unusual ring.
In 2016, scientists observed what is probably the first known contract killing outside of the human species. It happened in Borneo, when a female orangutan named Kondor “hired” a male named Ekko to eliminate a rival female, Sidony. These were, of course, names that the researchers gave them – the orangutans did not tell them their names. They’re dumb animals, and also they know what happens to snitches.
Orangutans are particularly docile as far as apes go, so it’s safe to say that Sidony did something to piss Kondor off right proper. The scheme began when Kondor called Ekko over, which was curious in itself, because orangutans of the opposite sex rarely associate outside of mating season. Later, Ekko was seen spying on Sidony, before returning to Kondor, with whom he immediately started having a lot of hot ape sex.
After that, Ekko confronted Sidony and promptly mauled her to death, before returning to Kondor and having some more hot ape sex.
Yes, you are correct: That was Kim Basinger’s sideplot from Wayne’s World 2. A thousand monkeys working at a thousand typewriters for a thousand years might not write Hamlet, but apparently they can nail down an SNL spin-off in an afternoon.
One of the siamang’s most distinctive features is its large gular, or throat, sac. This sac is found in both males and females, and can be inflated to be as large as the animal’s head. It serves as a resonating chamber for the siamang’s vocal cords, allowing it to make loud, resonating calls that can be heard over two miles away. These calls serve an important social function as a form of territorial defense, advertising that a particular location is already owned by a mated pair.
Along with our other great ape cousins – the gorillas, chimps, and bonobos – orangutans belong to our Hominidae family tree, which stretches back 14 million years. As the only great apes from Asia, orangutans have adapted to a life high in the rainforest canopies.
Many of the skills they learn are transmitted through the special bond they have with their mothers – the most extended in the animal kingdom next to humans. Orangutan mothers usually give birth to one baby at a time, waiting up to 8 years before having another. This gives the young, who begin as fully dependent infants, plenty of time to learn how to climb and distinguish the hundreds of plants and fruits that make up their diet. Female orangutans even stay with their mothers into their teen years to learn child-rearing.
As they grow up, orangutans also develop a complex set of cooperative social skills by interacting with their peers and siblings. Much like ourselves, young orangutans involuntarily mimic the facial expressions and emotions of their playmates, with behaviors that closely parallel human smiling and laughter.
Once they finally venture out on their own, orangutans continue to develop their resourcefulness, putting the skills they’ve learned into practice. Adults build a new nest each night by carefully weaving twigs together, topping them with soft leaves, pillows and blankets. This process requires dexterity, coordination, and an eye for design.
Orangutans also use a variety of tools to make their lives in the jungle easier. They turn branches into flyswatters and backscratchers; construct umbrellas when it rains; make gloves from leafy pads ; and even use leaves as bandages to dress their wounds.
But orangutan intelligence goes far beyond jungle survival. Research in controlled environments has shown that orangutans are self-aware, being one of the few species to recognize their own reflections. They also display remarkable foresight, planning, and cognition.
While orangutans are able to pass cognitive tests with flying colors, there are certain problems that they need our help to solve. Indonesia has the world’s highest rate of deforestation, and millions of acres of rainforest are burned annually to support the logging and palm oil industries. Deforestation exposes the 30,000 orangutans remaining in the wild to poachers. They kill mothers so that baby orangutans can be sold as exotic pets.
In Malay, the word orangutan translates literally to “the person of the forest” – a reminder of our common lineage. And despite orangutans being some of the smartest animals on Earth, outsmarting their extinction requires the creativity, empathy, and foresight that our species share.