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Research at St Andrews

Gesture use in communication between mothers and offspring in wild orang-utans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) from the Sabangau peat-swamp forest, Borneo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Andrea Knox, Joey Markx, Emma How, Abdul Azis, Catherine Hobaiter, Frank J.F. van Veen, Helen Morrogh-Bernard

School/Research organisations


Research on captive and wild great apes has established that they employ large repertoires of intentional gestural signals to achieve desired goals. However, gestural research has focused on African great apes, with orang-utan data limited to a few captive studies. We address this gap by describing gesture use in wild Southwest Bornean orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) mother and offspring pairs. We conducted focal follows on 16 individuals in the Sabangau peat-swamp forest in Borneo, Indonesia. The resulting 681 hours of video footage yielded 1,299 communicative signals: 858 vocal signals and 441 gestural signals. Eleven vocal signal types and twenty-one gesture types met the criterion for inclusion in the repertoire; however, the repertoire did not approach asymptote and further gesture types will likely be identified in the future. Signallers used gestures of any modality in higher frequency when the recipient was paying visual attention, and took the recipient’s visual attention into account when selecting gesture modalities. Orang-utans employed hands and arms more than legs and feet in gesturing, but were more flexible in their choice of limb than chimpanzees using the same gestures. Orang-utans were highly responsive to gestural requests, using them to achieve eight goals and, where successful, responding either before gesturing ended or in under 1-second in 90% of communications. Our findings on the range of gesture types and impact of visual attention support findings from captive orang-utans; and those on responsiveness and limb-use highlight the importance of studying ape communication in the social and ecological context to which it is adapted.


Original languageEnglish
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Journal of Primatology
VolumeFirst Online
Early online date24 Jun 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Jun 2019

    Research areas

  • Pongo, Gesture, Vocal, Signal modality, Attention state, Responsiveness

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