How Smart Is an Orangutan Exactly?

Reading the list of what those hairy apes can learn might make you feel like not-such-a-great ape.

Here’s a popular video making the web rounds right now: An orangutan laughs at a magic trick:

This orangutan may have been fooled by this trick, but the facts are, orangutans are no fools.

If you’ve ever watched the orangutan in action, you might sense these primates are not just zoo animals—and you’re right, as they share almost 97 percent of the same genetic material as humans. In fact, they are susceptible to human diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis B, and also are candidates for cardiovascular disease in their later years.

Measuring intelligence is really subjective: Remember that guy who cut you off in traffic for no apparent reason? That person who left the water running in the apartment above yours? That guy running for President…

One of the most important reasons to even have intelligence is to get something out of it, or to get out of potentially problematic situations—and orangutans do this well.

Like other high primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, you), orangutans use tools. They, like people, aren’t always born with the answers—but these creatures are sensational learners. Aside from the fact that in the wild orangutan moms actually teach their offspring things (like nest building and foods not to eat), they can also watch people and learn how to accomplish such tasks as sawing wood, applying insect repellent, use soap, and adopt language (like miming or sign language—orangutans don’t have the physical ability to speak like we do).

However, one reason that orangutan intelligence is so well-respected is their use of insight.

One of the most famous orangutans was Chantek, who was rejected by his mother as a baby and raised like a human child. At only nine months of age, he was already signing words and thoughts like “gimme-drink” and food-eat;” at nine months most human babies aren’t saying anything.

By the age of four, Chantek was improvising words when he couldn’t find or didn’t know the right one. He didn’t know “catsup,” but would ask for “tomato-toothpaste,” or called a Big Mac a “cheese-meat-bread.” He would also sign the word “dirty” when he needed to use the bathroom—but it was soon discovered he was often going into the bathroom to get out of doing other things. Chantek had not only learned the power of a word—that people were quick to give in for a bathroom break—but had also learned how to lie.

The experiences of the researchers at Camp Leakey also helps flesh out the orangutan intelligence profile.

Established in 1971, the camp is in Borneo, one of two native habitats of orangutans (the other being Sumatra). It was there that the orangutan was deemed an adept problem solver—as Michelle Desilets, Executive Director of the Orangutan Land Trust has explained in several interviews, when it comes to great apes the chimp is impatient and gorillas are unmotivated but orangutans will take their time to figure out a problem. Desilets has described the three great apes as such:

“If you give a chimpanzee a screwdriver, he’ll break it; if you give a gorilla a screwdriver, he’ll toss it over his shoulder; but if you give an orangutan a screwdriver, he’ll open up his cage and walk away.”

Researchers at Camp Leakey have reported that they have witnessed orangutans learn to wash clothing, bathe themselves, use hammers, brush their teeth, and even use damp rags to cool themselves—all of this learned by watching, without instruction.

So how smart is an orangutan? On paper, about as smart as a three-to-four-year-old child.

Then again, maybe we really don’t want to know what they know…

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