Building An Orangutan Nest

A nice comfortable bed is something that we want to have so that we get a good nights rest. We’ll take a lot of time choosing one in the stores as well as shelling out a significant amount of our disposable income. But what do we do when we go on vacation, on a camping trip perhaps? We moan and groan about the hard ground in the mornings.

Our primate relatives move around a lot and don’t have the luxury of a hi-tech mattress. They make the best of what’s around. Orangutans, for example build nests in trees. They do this every evening and move on next day. Van Casteran et al have watched and filmed the process and then checked the nests out afterwards. Their work is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (1) and reported by the BBC (2).

It is remarkable that the nests are built high up in the trees in about five minutes. Being properly inquisitive, the team had to take a closer look at the nests and took them apart to look at the mechanical properties of the components.

It turns out that Orangutans have good engineering skills. They used stiff branches for the outer supports and thinner, springier ones for the middle, but things are better than that. They twisted the branches so they split and broke part way as they wove them together. This gives a very strong and resilient structure rather like the sheep hurdles made out of split hazel that used to be seen around the English countryside.

Traditionally, we think of tools as objects used to do something else, but this level of constructional expertise requires a skill level that most of us humans don’t have these days. How many of us could build an Orangutan nest in five minutes if at all, and certainly not 100 feet up in a tree with no safety harness?


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