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Orangutan and human teenagers are more similar than we thought

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Caroline Schuppli

Just like human children and teens look to older role models for tips on how to behave, young primates spend a lot of time studying their elders, too.

Established research shows that once humans are old enough to tell the difference between males and females, we tend to mimic older people of the same gender.

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But researchers didn’t know if teen orangutans — one of our closest living animal relatives — might be so selective in whom they learn from, too.

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New research adds a twist to this tale: Teen orangutans are choosy in whom they look up to in order to learn their most vital social skills.

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In the study, which was published in the journal PLOS One, researchers analyzed how 50 orangutans living in Sumatra interacted together over the course of 15 years.

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Male and female orangutans have vastly different social habits. Adult females often reside in social groups, while males live alone.

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The researchers found that young female orangutans spent more time with their mothers. Males, on the other hand, spent more time mingling with individuals that were not their mothers.

Younger females were more attuned to the behavior of their neighbors and developed similar dietary habits as their mothers.

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Meanwhile, the males took an interest in adult male orangutans who had traveled from other parts of the forest. As adults, males tend to wander, while females stay close to home.

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The researchers call these males “immigrants,” due to their migratory behavior. By serving as role models to younger male orangutans, they pass on their nomadic traditions.

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These shared behaviors may hint at a pattern across other primate species.

The results also shed light on how social networks are passed down from older individuals to younger generations.

Turns out teen orangutans look up to role models that are the same sex as themselves — a reflection of how human teens tend to behave, too.

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Read more stories on animals here.

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