What did observing wild orangutans teach you about their Zoo counterparts?
Reddy: Our orangutans at the Zoo are incredibly intelligent, and I gained a stronger understanding of the need for this adaptation. Orangutans must know what is safe to eat, how to navigate their environment and, generally, how to survive. They undoubtedly have a great deal of knowledge about their forest home!
Researchers at Tuanan currently focus a great deal on orangutan nutrition ecology, so I learned a bit about their diet. The diversity of plants that orangutans consume in the wild was surprising — there are hundreds of species for them to choose from, although they are not all ripe for eating year-round. A plant called liana, which looks like peas in a pod, was a common selection. Orangutans break them open and eat the tiny white seeds inside. I took a taste of it, and the flavor resembled a bland pea. I asked the researchers if the orangutans had ever consumed anything unusual, and it was interesting to learn that some had observed the apes eating other primate species.
Orangutans live in variable environments, and at times, food is scare. Orangutans eat primarily fruit and play an important role dispersing seeds through defecation. Although they spend a majority of their total foraging time feeding on fruits whenever they are available, orangutans also eat insects and flowers, and during times of fruit scarcity, fall back on a variety of other types of food, including inner bark, leaves and other vegetation. Orangutans have also been observed eating mineral-rich soil, bird eggs and, occasionally, small mammals such as rats and slow lorises. Orangutans get water from a variety of sources, including tree holes and leaves that fill with water during the rainy season.
At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, it has been fascinating to observe Redd, our 3-year-old juvenile orangutan, and how his eating habits have developed over the years. Young orangutans must learn about hundreds of varieties of fruit, where to find them seasonally and how to open them. I have seem him observe mom Batang's eating habitats, and, at times, have witnessed her sharing food with him. Other times, she takes food away from him. This definitely resembled some parenting I was able to observe in the orangutans at Tuanan.