Swallow Falls' resident orangutan, Barb, has a way with words. In fact, as Chester V's right-hand primate, she outpaces her counterpart Steve's limited vocabulary by a mile.
But you can't judge all orangutans by Barb. Real orangutans can't talk like people because their mouths and throats aren't the correct shape to make speech. If you think that means they can't communicate, think again! Captive orangutans have been taught to use picture symbols to answer questions and ask for things. In some zoos, they even enjoy using their own iPads!
Scientists classify red-haired orangutans as members of the family Hominidae, which makes them cousins to apes, chimpanzees and people. In Malay, orang means person and utan means forest. So, orangutan means person of the forest.
Orangutans are the largest arboreal - or tree-living - animals in the world, spending over 95 percent of their time up in the branches. Their arms stretch up to 8 feet from fingertip to fingertip, and males can grow to be 300 pounds. With their long arms and flexible joints, they swing through the trees, and they are much better at making yoga poses than people. They have no problem putting their legs behind their heads.
Like people, orangutans have opposable thumbs, so they can easily hold on to things. They also have opposable big toes, which allow them to hang upside-down from branches for long periods of time to gather fruit and eat young leaves.
Orangutans also make tools. They use branches to scratch themselves, hunt for insects, collect honey from trees, and snag fruit that's out of their reach. They use leaves as napkins to wipe their chins and to help handle prickly fruits. They also use leafy branches to make shelters and drape large leaves over themselves like a poncho. In captivity, one orangutan was even trained to make stone-cutting tools.
In the wild, females have babies when they are 15-16 years of age. The new baby has to hold tight to its mother's body as she swings through the forest. It will stay with its mother for as many as eight years. Scientists think that's because it takes a young orangutan a long time to learn how to survive on its own. Only human children spend a longer time with their parents!
Photo by AFP/Getty Images.