Astronomers help counting orangutans


This 9 April 2019 video says about itself:

How to count orangutans | WWF from the field

Borneo is home to the critically endangered Orangutan. With population numbers around 100,000 there are huge conservation efforts being made to combat their two main threats; forest loss and hunting.

Traditionally, orangutan numbers are estimated by counting their nests from the ground, but this can be costly, and very time consuming. Our collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University tested how effective new thermal imaging drone technology would be to count the critically endangered orangutan.

Read more here.

From the British Ecological Society:

Astro-ecology: Counting orangutans using star-spotting technology

A collaboration between astrophysicists, conservationists and ecologists aims to save rare and endangered animals

April 9, 2019

A ground-breaking scientific collaboration is harnessing technology used to study the luminosity of stars, to carry out detailed monitoring of orangutan populations in Borneo. Liverpool John Moores University, WWF and HUTAN came together to examine better ways of detecting the great apes in the Bornean forest canopy, by using drones fitted with thermal-imaging cameras.

Orangutans, like all great apes, build a sleeping nest in trees. Traditionally orangutan numbers are estimated by counting these nests from the ground. However, this method is costly and time consuming due to the large areas that need to be surveyed.

Drones can cover large areas of difficult ground quickly and monitor endangered wildlife from above. The addition of thermal-imaging cameras has even more benefits, as a new study shows: They can detect difficult to find animals at any time of day or night because of their heat signatures. The field team conducted 28 flights at two sites over six days and successfully spotted 41 orangutans from the air, all of which were confirmed by ground observers.

“All orangutan species are critically endangered and monitoring their numbers is crucial for their conservation,” said Professor Serge Wich, Liverpool John Moores University’s expert in primate behavioural ecology.

By combining drone technology with thermal-imaging cameras, which are usually used by astronomers, researchers were able to spot and classify the animals’ heat signatures. To distinguish the primates from their surroundings, they performed flights before 9 a.m. or after 7 p.m. local time.

Dr Claire Burke, an astro-ecologist at the university, who will present the findings at the ‘Unifying Tropical Ecology’ conference in Edinburgh today said:

“We tested the technology on orangutans in the dense tropical rainforest of Sabah in Malaysia. In thermal images, animals shine in a similar way to stars and galaxies, so we used techniques from astronomy to detect and distinguish them. We were not sure at all whether this would work, but with the thermal-infrared camera we could see the orangutans quite clearly because of their body heat, even during fog or at night.”

Dr Burke added:

“The biggest difficulties occur when the temperature of the ground is very similar to that of the animal we are trying to detect, so the images from morning or evening flights are more reliable. Absolute surface temperatures cannot be used to differentiate species as animal body temperatures change with that of their environment.”

This innovative technology could potentially be used to understand and monitor population numbers of orangutans or other endangered primate species.

Nicola Loweth, Asian Programme Manager at WWF, who was on the Bornean study said:

“As ever more species are decimated, due to human activity such as deforestation, we must embrace and scale up innovative approaches to monitoring wildlife populations, to better protect them for generations to come.

Our collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University to test the feasibility of thermal-imaging and drone technology to monitor orangutan populations in Sabah has proven promising and could have a wide range of applications, benefiting wildlife conservation as a whole.”

The team also spotted a troop of proboscis monkeys during the field trial, which they were able to distinguish from orangutans based on their smaller size. Besides that, proboscis monkeys are generally found in groups, whereas orangutans tend to be solitary or in pairs. Pygmy elephants were also captured on a night-time forage through an oil palm plantation.

The astro-ecologists are now developing a machine learning algorithm to tell animal species apart, based on their unique thermal fingerprint.

“In the future, we hope to be able to track, distinguish and monitor large numbers of different species of animals in real time, all around the globe, so that this technology can be used to make a real impact on conservation and stop poaching before it happens,” Dr Burke concluded.

The group previously tested the technology with spider monkeys in Mexico and riverine rabbits in South Africa and will soon be embarking on a field study with the Lac Alaotra bamboo lemurs in Madagascar.

The ‘Unifying Tropical Ecology’ conference in Edinburgh is organised by the British Ecological Society and Society for Tropical Ecology (gtö). There will be an entire session on the use of drones for animal and plant monitoring, including a presentation of the ‘Orangutan Nest Watch’ project where citizen scientists can help researchers look through images to spot orangutans and fig trees.

British transport union TSSA adopts orangutan to highlight palm oil dangers: here.

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Orangutan tool use, new study


This 2009 videp is called Attenborough: Amazing DIY Orangutans | BBC Earth.

From the University of Vienna in Austria:

Orangutans make complex economic decisions about tool use

February 14, 2019

Flexible tool use is closely associated to higher mental processes such as the ability to plan actions. Now a group of cognitive biologists and comparative psychologists from the University of Vienna, the University of St Andrews and the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna that included Isabelle Laumer and Josep Call, has studied tool related decision-making in a non-human primate species — the orangutan. They found that the apes carefully weighed their options: eat an immediately available food reward or wait and use a tool to obtain a better reward instead? To do so the apes considered the details such as differences in quality between the two food rewards and the functionality of the available tools in order to obtain a high quality food reward, even when multidimensional task components had to be assessed simultaneously.

Tool-use in animals is rare and often quickly rated as intelligent due to its striking nature. For instance, antlions throw small pebbles at potential prey, archer fish down prey by spitting water at them, and sea otters use stones to crack open shells. Nevertheless, most types of tool use are quite inflexible, typically applied to one situation and tightly controlled by processes that are a part of the respective animal’s inborn behavioural repertoire. In contrast, intelligent tool use requires the integration of multiple sources of information to flexibly adapt to quickly changing environmental conditions.

Orangutans share 97 percent of their DNA with us and are among the most intelligent and most endangered primates. They have human-like long-term memory, routinely use a variety of sophisticated tools in the wild and construct elaborate sleeping nests each night from foliage and branches. In their natural habitat, the evergreen rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans have to consider several factors simultaneously, such as the predictability to find ripe fruits, the distance and reachability of food as well as the available tools to open extractable food sources. So far it was unknown how orangutans adapt their decisions when the use of a tool is involved and how many factors they can process at the same time in order to make profitable decisions.

Researchers from the University of Vienna, the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and the University of St Andrews investigated for the first time how orangutans adapt their decisions when the use of a tool is involved and how many factors they can process at the same time in order to make profitable decisions at the Wolfgang Koehler Primate Research Center in Leipzig.

The researchers used two different types of food items: Banana-pellets, which are the orangutans’ most favourite food type, and apple pieces which they like but disregard if banana-pellets are available. They could extract these items from two different apparatuses: an apparatus required probing with a stick tool to obtain the food item while the other required dropping a ball inside it. Each apparatus could only be operated with the respective tool. During testing, orang-utans were confronted with either one or two baited apparatus/es and a choice between two items (usually a food item and a tool). Once the apes had picked one item the other was immediately removed.

Orangutans flexibly adapted their decisions to different conditions: “If the apple piece (likeable food) or the banana-pellet (favourite food) was out of immediate reach inside the apparatus and the choice was between an immediate banana-pellet and a tool, they chose the food over the tool, even when the tool was functional for the respective apparatus,” explains Isabelle Laumer who conducted the experiment. “However, when the orangutans could choose between the apple-piece and a tool they chose the tool but only if it worked for the available apparatus: For example when the stick and the likeable food was available but the apes faced the ball-apparatus baited with the favourite banana-pellet, they chose the apple-piece over the non-functional tool. However when the stick-apparatus with the banana-pellet inside was available they chose the stick-tool over the immediate apple-piece,” she further explains. “In a final task, that required the orangutans to simultaneously focus on the two apparatuses, one baited with the banana-pellet and the other with the apple and the orangutans had to choose between the two tools they were still able to make profitable decisions by choosing the tool that enabled them to operate the apparatus with the favorite food.”

These results are similar to findings in Gofffin cockatoos that have been previously tested in the same task. “Similar to the apes, the cockatoos could overcome immediate impulses in favor of future gains even if this implied tool use. “The birds were confronted with the choice between a tool to retrieve an out-of-reach food item and an immediate reward. We found that they, similar to the apes, were highly sensible to the quality of the immediate relative to the out-of-reach reward at the same time as to whether the available tool would actually work with the task at hand,” explains Alice Auersperg, the head of the Goffin Lab in Austria. She continues: “Again, this suggests that similar cognitive abilities can evolve independently in distantly related species.”Nevertheless, the cockatoos did reach their limit at the very last task in which both apparatuses baited with both possible food qualities and both tools were available at the same time.”

“Optimality models suggest that orangutans should flexibly adapt their foraging decisions depending on the availability of high nutritional food sources, such as fruits,” says Josep Call from the University of St Andrews. “Our study shows that orangutans can simultaneously consider multi-dimensional task components in order to maximize their gains and it is very likely that we haven´t even reached the full extent of their information processing capabilities.”

“According to a 2007 survey by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) orangutans will be extinct in the wild within two decades if current deforestation trends continue,” says Isabelle Laumer. “Habitat loss due to extensive palm-oil production is the major threat. Unfortunately palm oil is still the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. As long as there is a demand for palm oil and we keep buying products that contain palm oil, more and more of the rainforest will be destroyed. Each of us can positively impact the survival of these extraordinary animals by making purchase decisions that may appear small, but that can collectively make a huge impact on our planet.”

Freed blonde orangutan girl Alba doing well


This 21 December 2018 video from Borneo in Indonesia says about itself:

Update on Alba’s Reintroduction

[Albino blonde orangutan girl] Alba [freed recently after reconvalescence] is doing very well, and has adapted quickly to her new home with friend Kika! Our PRM team has followed Alba since her return, waking at 3 a.m. before she rises to track her progress. Don’t worry, we will keep an eye on Alba and her pal.

Read more here.

Blonde orangutan Alba freed in Borneo


This 17 December 2018 video from Indonesia says about itself:

The World’s Only Albino Orangutan – Alba

Do you remember when Alba first came to our rescue centre? Post this emoji «🙌» in the comment section if you participated in suggesting a name for her!

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Albino orangutan Alba will be freed today in a national park in the Indonesian part of Borneo island. The animal was found by villagers in May last year and kept in a cage.

Conservationists found the very malnourished and dehydrated female and took her along. From all over the world there were suggestions for a name for the orangutan. Eventually it became Alba, which means white in Latin and dawn in Spanish.

Recently, the animal has strengthened. The female has also shown that she can climb trees effortlessly. According to experts, she is therefore ready for a return to the wild.

Today Alba is released together with a normally coloured congener. They will be monitored in the national park.

Orangutans making tools, new study


This 2013 video says about itself:

A female orangutan is eating ants using a stick as a tool to dislodge the insects from a tree hole. The orangutan population of Suak Belimbing in South East Aceh is known to use tools to extract the nuts from the nesia fruit. This behavior is a sign of evolution in great apes like orangutans and chimpanzees.

The orangutans of Sumatra are threatened by lose of habitat and poaching.

From the University of Vienna in Austria:

Orangutans spontaneously bend straight wires into hooks to fish for food

November 8, 2018

Summary: Cognitive biologists and comparative psychologists have just studied hook tool making in a non-human primate species — the orangutan. To the researchers’ surprise the apes spontaneously manufactured hook tools out of straight wire within the very first trial and in a second task unbent curved wire to make a straight tool.

The bending of a hook into wire to fish for the handle of a basket is surprisingly challenging for young children under eight years of age. Now cognitive biologists and comparative psychologists from the University of Vienna, the University of St Andrews and the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna working with Isabelle Laumer and Alice Auersperg studied hook tool making for the first time in a non-human primate species — the orangutan.

More precisely: Sumatran orangutan.

To the researchers’ surprise the apes spontaneously manufactured hook tools out of straight wire within the very first trial and in a second task unbent curved wire to make a straight tool.

Human children are already proficient tool-users and tool-makers from an early age on. Nevertheless, when confronted with a task which required them to innovate a hooked tool out of a straight piece of wire in order to retrieve a basket from the bottom of a vertical tube, the job proved more challenging for children than one might think: Three to five-year-old children rarely succeed and even at the age of seven less than half of them were able to solve the task. Only at the age of eight the majority of children was able to innovate a hook-tool. Interestingly children of all tested age classes succeeded when given demonstrations on how to bend a hook and use it. Thus, although young children apparently understand what kind of tool is required and are skilled enough to make a functional tool, there seems to be a cognitive obstacle in innovating one.

Cognitive biologists and comparative psychologists have now tested for the first time a primate species in the hook-bending task. “We confronted the orangutans with a vertical tube containing a reward basket with a handle and a straight piece of wire. In a second task with a horizontal tube containing a reward at its centre and a piece of wire that was bent at 90°”, explains Isabelle Laumer who conducted the study at the Zoo Leipzig in Germany. “Retrieving the reward from the vertical tube thus required the orangutans to bent a hook into the wire to fish the basket out of the tube. The horizontal tube in turn required the apes to unbent the bent piece of wire in order to make it long enough to push the food out of the tube.”

Several orangutans mastered the hook bending task and the unbending task. Two orangutans even solved both tasks within the first minutes of the very first trial. “The orangutans mostly bent the hooks directly with their teeth and mouth while keeping the rest of the tool straight. Thereafter they immediately inserted it in correct orientation, hooked the handle and pulled the basket up”, she further explains.

Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with us and are among the most intelligent primates. They have human-like long-term memory, routinely use a variety of sophisticated tools in the wild and construct elaborate sleeping nests each night from foliage and branches. Today orangutans can only be found in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. Like all four great ape species, orangutans are listed as critically endangered (IUCN, Red List). “Habitat loss due to extensive palm-oil production, illegal wildlife trade and poaching are the major threats. Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. As long as there is a demand for palm oil and consumers keep buying products that contain palm oil, the palm industry thrives. According to a 2007 survey by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) orangutans will be extinct in the wild within two decades if current deforestation trends continue”, says Isabelle Laumer.

“The hook-bending task has become a benchmark paradim to test tool innovation abilities in comparative psychology,” says Alice Auersperg from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. “Considering the speed of their hook innovation, it seems that they actively invented a solution to this problem rather than applying routined behaviours.”

“Finding this capacity in one of our closest relatives is astonishing. In human evolution hook tools appear relatively late. Fish hooks and harpoon-like, curved objects date back only approximately 16,000- 60,000 years. Although New Caledonian crows use hooks with regularity, there are a few observations of wild apes, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, that use previously detached branches to catch and retrieve out-of-reach branches for locomotion in the canopy. This branch-hauling tools might represents one of the earliest and simplest raking tools used and made by great apes and our ancestors”, says Josep Call of the University of St Andrews.

So why do younger children struggle with this task? “Follow-up studies showed that children’s difficulty with independently finding the solution cannot be explained by fixedness on unmodified tools, impulsivity nor by not being able to change the strategy. The hook bending task represents a complex problem, for which several unrewarded steps must be performed while keeping the final goal in mind”, explains Isabelle Laumer. “Interestingly, complex problem solving has been associated to certain areas of the medial prefrontal cortex, which mature later in the child development. This explanation, besides children´s strong reliance on social learning might explain their success at a later age.”