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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

From the News: Orangutan upends thinking on speech evolution

In the modern zoo, the emphasis of the mission is on conservation and education.  It's easy to forget that many zoos were devised with an additional purpose in mind - as living research laboratories.  Before field biology - as practiced by Jane Goodall, George Schaller, and other pioneering scientists - developed into what we know today, zoos and aquariums offered researchers their only chance to observe living wild animals.  Today, many zoos and aquariums still carry out research, either through supporting scientists in the field, or in studying their own animals to gain new insights on how to improve captive care.

The research being done at the Indianapolis Zoo with orangutans and speech is an exciting breakthrough.  There's always been lots of discussion on how "human-like" chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas can be; orangutans have often been the forgotten, excluded ape.  Perhaps it's because they live alone in the wild, displaying fewer of the social interactions of the other apes that reveal so much of their intelligence.  Hopefully this research (which I can't imagine being done with wild apes in Indonesia) will continue to highlight the intelligence of orangutans and shed light on the origins of human speech. 

It certainly would be nice if it drove up some interest in conserving one of the world's most remarkable (and most threatened) primates before it's too late.

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