When it comes to female orangutans and their mothers it really is a case of ‘I wanna be like you’.


Like humans, immature orangutans must accumulate a huge set of skills during the early years of their lives by watching and imitating the behaviour of their elders.

Now, researchers at the Max-Planck Institute of Animal Behavior have found that female orangutans are fixated on their mothers as they grow up whereas males tend to gravitate towards individuals from other social groups.

The preference is possibly due to the differences in adult orangutans’ patterns of behaviour, with females tending to stay in the areas where they were born and settle in the same home range as their mothers, and males tending to seek out other habitats, the researchers say.

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“In our study we showed that immature orangutans show sex-specific attentional preferences when observing role models other than their mothers,” lead researcher Dr Caroline Schuppli. “Our results also provide evidence that these biases result in different learning outcomes and may thus be an important way for orangutans to learn sex-specific foraging patterns. All in all, these results highlight the importance of fine-grained social inputs during development for orangutans - the least sociable of all ape species, and thus likely also for other primates.”

To make the finding, the team analysed 15 years of detailed observational data recorded on the social learning and dietary habits of 50 immature animals from two groups of Sumatran orangutans.

To measure the degree to which each of the animals interacted with others, the authors analysed the number of "peering events" – defined as the attentive and close range watching of another animal's activities - and the amount of time spent in close proximity to others.


They found that females directed the vast majority of their social attention, and had similar diets, to their mothers, whereas males spent longer observing animals other than their mothers, particularly those that came from a different home range.


Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.