When Carel van Schaik reached the top of his rope ladder, his first thought was: “Oh shit, there’s an orangutan here.”
He was trying to measure the climate in the canopy of the Sumatran rain forest, using sensors that he had hoisted into the treetops. The devices were incredibly delicate: “You’d touch them and they’d break,” van Schaik recalls. So when he saw an orangutan ambling around, he feared the worst.
Fortunately, the animal was completely uninterested in the equipment. Van Schaik was surprised. It didn’t jibe with the behavior he saw in rehabilitation centers, where orangutans are rescued or confiscated from smugglers, and cared for in captivity. There, the apes were a curious lot, and would fish through garbage cans, raid stockrooms, and even steal laundry from lines. “The wild ones never did that,” van Schaik says.
He and his team at the University of Zurich have spent several years confirming that observation in dozens of individuals. They’ve shown that wild orangutans are decidedly incurious. They eschew the new. They abhor the unfamiliar. Captive orangutans couldn’t be more different. They readily explore what their wild counterparts ignore. Something about captivity, whether it’s the close contact with humans or the absence of predators, unlocks a latent capacity for curiosity. And if that happens early enough, it boosts their problem-solving abilities as adults. “This dormant potential lies there waiting to be used,” van Schaik says.