The Great Ape Behavioral Parallel - 2

Written by Daryl Colyer and Alton Higgins Tuesday, 16 December 2008

By Daryl Colyer and Alton Higgins

Lately it seems that every other month brings forth new enlightenment about great ape behavior. With each new and exciting observation, a question comes to mind: “What next?”

The answer may lie in the thousands of reports of alleged wood ape, aka "bigfoot," encounters.

In a paper published this month in Primates, Dr. Serge Wich, Dr. Karyl Swartz and Dr. Rob Shumaker; Madeleine E. Hardus and Adriano R. Lameira, doctoral candidates at the Utrecht University in The Netherlands; and Erin Stromberg, an animal caretaker at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., reveal new documentation of a non-human primate mimicking a sound from another species without being specifically trained to do so. Bonnie, a 30-year-old female orangutan living at the National Zoo, began whistling after hearing the animal caretaker make the sound. The authors of the paper go on to provide anecdotal information regarding Indah, another orangutan observed whistling.

The documentation of such behavior is obviously an extremely important discovery; its implications for the study of great apes’ learning capacities in the auditory domain cannot be understated. But perhaps even more fascinating, and most certainly overlooked by mainstream scientists, is the fact that the mimicking and whistling behavior of the orangutans can now be added to a growing list of other great ape behavioral traits that have long been ascribed to the putative wood ape.

The list of such behaviors that were previously reported by alleged wood ape observers includes swimming, throwing rocks and/or vegetation (limbs, branches, nuts, pine cones), fishing, eating omnivorously, carrying and eating swine, intimidation displays, marking trails, eating fish, building nests, making loud vocalizations, whistling, mimicking, among others. Such descriptions, when attributed to the wood ape, were always greeted with derision and cynicism; however, it is now clear that these descriptions have been uncannily accurate suggestions of great ape behavior. The more we learn about great apes, the less incredible alleged wood ape behavior becomes, especially when realizing that such descriptions of wood ape behavior came long before such behavior was documented in the known great apes.

For clues to what other behavioral traits may be observed in the future regarding great apes, perhaps a crash course in wood ape sighting reports is the first order of business.

Sources: Great Ape Trust of Iowa; Great Ape Trust of Iowa (video of whistling orangutan); Primates: A Case of Spontaneous Acquisition of a Human Sound by an Orangutan.

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