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Orangutan Gestures

July 8, 2010

Orangutans use gestures to convey specific intentions, and expect appropriate responses.


Translating ape gestures. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Humans use lots of gestures to communicate, and so do apes. Now, researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have taken a crack at decoding orangutan gestures. Erica Cartmill and Richard Byrne have translated about forty so far. To do that, Byrne says they had to invent a new interpretation system.

RICHARD BYRNE (University of St. Andrews, Scotland):
The heart of it is to look for the typical reaction of the audience that appears to satisfy the signaler.

The assumption being that if the gesturers get the intended reaction, they’ll stop – and if not, they’ll keep trying until they do. They combined these observations with an independent analysis of the social context. Some of the body language was like ours, but other gestures were more surprising, like a fake bite near the face to initiate play. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.