Orangutans "Play Charades" to Communicate With People

Sara Goudarzi
for National Geographic News
August 2, 2007
Captive orangutans "play charades" to communicate with humans, a behavior that suggests the apes tailor their gestures to their audiences.

In a new study, researchers observed orangutans intentionally repeating or modifying hand gestures based on the success or failure of their first communication attempts.

"It was known that orangutans, like all great apes, are able to acquire new gestural signals," said study co-author Richard Byrne, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

"But the charades analogy—implying that the animal is not only communicating as best it can but also picking up on the level of understanding of its audience and modifying subsequent gestures accordingly—is new information."

Understanding how apes, our closest genetic relatives, communicate could provide insight into the strategies that helped shape early forms of human language.

(Related: "Chimp 'Dinner Conversation' Proof of Ape Speech?" [October 20, 2005].)

The study appears this week in the journal Current Biology.

Sounds Like …

Byrne and his St. Andrews colleague Erica Cartmill presented six captive orangutans from two different zoos with either a tasty treat or a not-so-tempting food item.

The orangutans could only obtain the food with human help, so they needed to use gestures to communicate their wants to their helpers.

During the experiment, the orangutans directed all their communication attempts—such as pointing, waving, and blowing raspberries—toward the desirable food.

Sometimes the researchers would "understand" and give the animals the treat.

But other times the helpers purposefully misunderstood the orangutans' requests and gave them only part of the desirable item or the yucky alternative.

When the entire portion of the treat was handed over, all but one of the orangutans ceased signaling entirely. Several of these seemingly satisfied individuals retreated into their cages, breaking off contact with the helper.

In cases where the animals were "misunderstood" and received only part of what they requested, they continued to signal to the experimenter, frequently repeating gestures already used.

When the apes were completely misread and didn't get any of the desirable food, they elaborated their range of movements and avoided repeating previously failed signals.

"The response showed that the orangutan had intended a particular result, anticipated getting it, and kept trying until it got the result," study co-author Cartmill said.

Universal Communiqué

Although the study involved only six apes, scientists expect to find such communication patterns across the board in captive orangutans.

"There's no reason to assume that these six would have abilities that would be completely absent or completely unknown in other orangutans," said Robert Shumaker, director of orangutan research at the Great Ape Trust research center.

"If you document these capacities in even a small number of individuals, I think that's very, very meaningful," added Shumaker, who was not involved with the new study.

But researchers are unsure whether this type of gesturing occurs among orangutans in the wild or if it's simply a tactic used exclusively for communicating with humans.

"[It's] hard to detect [in the wild] without setting up a 'dumb audience' situation, as we did in the experiment," study co-author Byrne said.

"But we imagine it is very implausible that this whole subtle process developed in zoos and only for people. Let's be positive: This must be a basic part of orangutan communication."

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).


© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.