The Nuances of Orangutan Nests

As the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s great apes prepare to go to sleep, they make their beds, then settle in. Just like their wild counterparts, orangutans in zoos build cozy nests. Where an orangutan chooses to snooze at night can give keepers insight into their social preferences, according to a study entitled “Nest location preferences in zoo-housed orangutans,” published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Get the scoop on the study from Primates Curator Meredith Bastian.     

Orangutan Iris in a nest
Bornean-Sumatran orangutan Iris lounges in her nest at the Great Ape House.
A Smokey Bear statue beside a sign that says "Entering Smokey Bear Zone" at the Smithsonian's National Zoo
Three vintage posters depicting Smokey Bear
Pregnant orangutan Batang rests in her nest in 2016.
While Bornean orangutan Batang was pregnant with Redd in 2016, she built some very elaborate (and comfy) nests.

Are there differences in how individual orangutans build nests?

Yes. Although all wild orangutans use leaves to embellish their nests with leafy pillows, blankets or mattresses, the frequency with which each type of embellishment is used varies across populations and sites.  

Differences can also stem from individual preference. For example, Batang makes very elaborate nests. A few days before she gave birth to Redd, she created an even larger and more elaborate nest! Since she has given birth, we have not formally documented her nesting behaviors or location preferences. However, the primate team has noticed that she has made larger and more well-cushioned nests since Redd’s arrival.

Redd has been observed making his own “practice” nest, but he always shares a night nest with Batang. He will continue to do so for many more years.

Bornean-Sumatran orangutan Bonnie lays in her nest.
Orangutans Bonnie (foreground) and Kyle (background) share a nest in an off-exhibit room at the Zoo's Great Ape House.