Just So Story #1: Why the orangutan swings…



Having talked to lots of people back home , I realise what we (OuTrop – see here and the website) actually do each day might be a little odd and need an explanation to other scientists and the public.

So here we are! The Just So Story of the moving primates…

I am lucky enough to take part in the OuTrop field team. We work mainly on primates, insects and plants, but mix in lots of conservation and scientific writing.

If you are on a primate day, you are either Searching or Following.

Searching means you don’t know where the orangutan/gibbon/red langur is , so you in a team of 1-3 target a certain area/territory of a group/individual (orangutans typically travel alone, as opposed to gibbons and red langurs, who travel in family groups).  When searching you can move slowly and quietly covering about 4km in 5 hours. You time these 5 hours to cover the most active part of the primate’s day. For example Red Langurs take a little/long siesta , so no point searching from 11am as they’ll be tucked up tiny on top of the leaves somewhere.

A female, mum orangutan in her day nest, watching me watching her.

Or you can search fast and cover lots of ground, but this only really works with the orangutans because they are big and loud. I was searching for orangutans once and we found one eventually from a few snapped branches about 800m away through dense forest – more impressive than it sounds…

So then you find a primate – and you’re following! Following them till they go to sleep in which ever tree they may choose (hopefully this tree is not very far from camp, not the completely swamped transects of mud-doom… and hopefully they go to bed by the latest 4.30pm – orangutans are the worse for sleeping late, because they wake up the latest-sometimes. Nothing is certain).

Mother Indy and baby Icarus clinging on (tiny bump to the left)

If you start on a Follow, it means that primate was ‘nested’ (sleeping tree seen and noted) yesterday, and you need to get to the ‘sleeping tree’ before your individual wakes up. These means you have to leave camp around 4am , depending on how far away the primate is. Depending on how much coffee you want to drink before you leave camp, and how long you need to untie your mud-coated-hardened shoe laces to tie them back up again – you’re looking at beginning to get dressed in the dark about 3.10am… (see my earlier blog post for details of dark mornings and/or forest wanderings).

So once you have found an individual (and you don’t lose them) , we take a hugs amount of data of them which fall under the general categories of location , activity, notable behaviour – which primarily results in heated discussion about who they interact with (get ID photos out) or what they ate (ask our amazing Indonesian plant experts – just incase ask three). Which obviously touch on large topics of ranging and seasonality of plants (for example see this chapter). Interesting stuff!

Once you find them, get any shot you can - quick!

Once you find them, get any shot you can – quick!

From this we had some pretty interesting revelations. Orangutans move differently to reflect the quality and homogeneity of the forest. Gibbons are monogamous (widely known), and are highly social (as well as here)- something I love about them! They also have been known to kill each other (apparently there is not enough forest to go round. Which is believable with the current Indonesian reforestation rates, discussed here). The record between our staff, for the longest time an orangutan has sat in a single tree, and ate, and not moved , was ten hours. Fun for that PhD student (in fact, if you get used to an individual who comes across as slower than the average orange bear, you are advised to take a book into the forest). Wisely – gibbons stay near food. As do the orangutans. And so we have reached the first Just So; the primates always (pretty much always) swings and moves is to find – and have hopefully a continuous supply of  – food. Because they eat things with next to no nutritional value, and are quite big, hot bodied, very active animals – so they eat a LOT!

So after watching all this, your neck craned upwards under the munching mammals – staring at monkey chins and bottoms when you would like to be staring at monkey faces, and once you’ve written all the data down… you walk back to camp as the light drops, and discuss (over rice, green beans and spice) the behaviour that you saw, edits to known home ranges – and all importantly where people should follow from or search tomorrow! Fingers crossed for a good nights sleep amongst the very loud frogs.

Where I will hopefully sleep well, and usually do!

Where I will hopefully sleep well, and usually do!

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