Tuesday, January 27, 2015

One Orangutan = Lots of Things to Learn (with Laurel Neme)

Writer Laurel Neme has investigated a lot of wildlife stories over her career, and written for a diverse range of outlets, from the environmental news site Mongabay.com to her podcast The WildLife to a new picture book Orangutan Houdini.

Laurel's interest in writing a picture book after writing for an older audience began with the influence books about animals had on her when she was young, sparking an interest in this topic. Laurel channeled this interest in animals and wildlife into writing, but sees how an initial spark of interest can lead in many directions. For example, she says, "wildlife forensics [her primary focus]. . . is a new science, which means that there are a lot of discoveries to be made, a kid today who gets interested in this [field] will have many chances to make a new discovery."

The idea of a starting spark of curiosity begetting more curiosity and branching out into new discoveries informs how Laurel presents her work to classes and educators.

On January 24th, Laurel talked educators through one network of exploring across many subject areas starting with the example of her book Orangutan Houdini. This book tells the story of Fu Manchu, a real life orangutan who lived in a Nebraska zoo. Fu traded treats with an older orangutan for a length of wire she could pull from the light fixture in her cage. He could use that wire to pick the cage locks whenever he felt like roaming outside. The zookeepers knew he used something to pick the locks, but never could find what it was because Fu hid the wire in his mouth. When he was finally moved to a more secure enclosure and his keepers admitted they couldn't figure out his trick, he showed them where the wire was hidden. He never tried using that trick to escape again. As Laurel says "Once he knew the jig was up, he was done."

Fu Manchu wasn't alone. Laurel has heard a lot of orangutan stories like Fu Manchu's. There was Ken Allen, an ape at the San Diego zoo, who liked to escape so he could hang out with the human tourists (the zookeepers brought in Swiss mountaineers to figure out what handholds he might be using). Another orangutan enjoyed the trick of unlocking all the other orangutans' cages at night so they could switch places before the zookeepers returned to let them out in the morning.

This stories aren't just about particularly interesting orangutans. They show orangutans' ability to plan, to use tools, to anticipate what the zookeepers will think or do so that they can hide their tricks, and that they enjoy a challenge. These stories are part of the larger mystery of animal intelligence.

Another example of orangutan intelligence is how some of them learn language. They can't vocalize in the way humans do, but can learn to understand what we say and respond using symbols. For example, Rob Shunaker (currently at the Indianapolis Zoo) has worked for decades with Azy, an orangutan who communicates using symbols on a computer screen. You can see a video of the two working together that Laurel uses in classroom presentations here. Another example is Chantek, an orangutan who uses sign language and has other skills including making jewelry (for fun) and (according to Wikipedia) giving the directions to get from his home at the research center to the nearest Dairy Queen. Chantek is known for inventing words when he doesn't know the exact symbols, for example "tomato" plus "toothpaste" = ketchup.

Laurel has discovered that younger children particularly enjoy seeing how the orangutans learn language because it mirrors how they study parts of speech (Azy, for example, knows nouns and verbs) and also connecting symbols to words (known in human parlance as "reading").

How did orangutans get so smart? 

One theory is because they spent a lot of time sitting in trees and thinking. Orangutans are the only fully arboreal ape. They don't have many natural predators, and they pretty much sit up out of reach anyway. That gave their ancestors time to look around and ponder.

Fully Rotating Hips - Picture of a Sumatran Orangutan from Wikipedia
Whatever the connection to trees and thinking, you can see clear evidence how the orangutan's body matches its tree-to-tree existence. They have an arm span that is 1.5 times their height - or about the same as an NBA basketball player's arm span. They also have fully rotating hips, in addition to rotating shoulders. Laurel's teacher's guide to Orangutan Houdini includes examples of building math lessons from these measurements.

In addition to looking at the engineering of an orangutan's body, you can also study their movement patterns - and how these patterns suggest a different personality than other great apes (Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Bonobos). In this YouTube clip, movement coach Terry Notary demonstrates the differences.

Apes have no tails. Monkey have tails. Curious George? No tail

Tree top life is only one component of the orangutans' habitat. These trees grow in the rainforest of only two islands: Borneo and Sumatra. The peat swamps common on these islands help explain some of the orangutan's color. They create a muddy, orange-ish color that reflects up from the ground, while the sunlight filtering down through the trees' canopies reflects green and absorbs some of the orange colors . . . making muddy orange an excellent camouflage. Laurel's teacher's guide includes activities for discussing the rainforest ecosystem.

Orangutans play an important role in the traditional cultures in the places where they're found. The name "orangutan" means "Man of the Forest" in the Dayak language of that region. These cultures have strong beliefs about protecting orangutans, which are not necessarily honored by others. Like many animals adapted to habitats that cover only a small area, the orangutans face threats from loss of those habitats due to human activity.

Palm oil production is one major factor in destroying the places where orangutans live. Palm oil is very common in food manufacturing. In some ways it's a great oil to use - it's plant-based, stable, and the oil palm trees require relatively little land to grow. However, orangutan habitat is being cleared and peat swamps burned to open space for planting the oil palms. Burning or draining the peat swamps additionally releases large amounts of carbon (20 times more than with neighboring forests not on peat according to Mongabay). A switch to "deforestation-free" palm oil that focuses on using land that has already been disturbed instead of clearing new land is one solution. "That's a harder story to tell," Laurel notes, "It's easier to say 'no' to palm oil. . . but the goal is really sustainable oil production."

Other concerns for orangutans are the capture of babies for the illegal pet trade and treatment of animals in the entertainment industry.

A lot of Laurel's writing has to do with the threats facing wildlife. She's found that kids can take an active, effective part in advocacy. We have an entire post focused on kids and advocacy, which we've updated with new information following Laurel's talk.

That's a snapshot of some of the things you can learn from the starting point of one story about an orangutan playing a trick on its keepers. Laurel has more ideas written out as classroom activities in her Teacher's Guide for Orangutan Houdini found on her website www.laurelneme.com. She encourages any feedback teachers have to offer.

And get ready for our next workshop with Katherine Roy, author / illustrator of Neighborhood Sharks. Find out how she does her research and how she turns that research into storytelling, Saturday, February 7th, 11:00 am.

Laurel signs copies of Orangutan Houdini

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