Orangutan Intelligence

Evidence of Orangutan Intelligence

In the ongoing research of orangutans and orangutan intelligence, there has been evidence collected of both social and physical intelligence. The physical signs of intelligence include: tool-making and use for problem-solving; insight and memory of space, time mental maps, and classification; concepts such as simple arithmetic and mirror self-recognition; and plan in advance innovate. The social evidence of orangutan intelligence includes deception, coalitions and alliances, mediation, reconciliation, consoling, empathy, intentions, imitation, teaching, culture, and language.

Information and photos courtesy of Anne Russon.


This young orangutan is using a hammer-like object to pound and open up a termite nest.

This orangutan is using a tool “kit” in order to make fire. This tool kit includes sticks, kerosene, and a fan.


As seen in these photos, the watermelon shell can be a multitude of things to an orangutan. This could include a hat, a bowl, or even a chair.

In the first photo, the orangutan is resting in a normal style nest in the trees. In the second photo, the orangutan is resting in a “prefabricated” nest made out of a crate.

Concept and Tool Use

The female orangutan in this photo is “writing” with a mosquito coil on the paper. She is also shown to have “fixed” the pen.

In this photo, the orangutan is combining concept, toolmaking, and tool use. This is done by making a “hanger” to hang from the branches and then using the tree branches to rake in food from the water.


This orangutan is innovating their surroundings by swimming in the water.

Understanding Others

Orangutans have been known to understand other individuals, especially when the other is hurt. In one instance, an orangutan helped a lost and injured adolescent female.

Social Learning

In this photo, the orangutan is teaching the other orangutan how to drink water from a stone.

Orangutans have also been seen to understand social roles. In this photo, the orangutans are using the cable car, with one acting as a “driver” and the other as a “passenger”.


The orangutan “Chantek” who was born at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, learned to speak American Sign Language.

Orangutans have also been known to utilize sign language, gestures, and pantomime. The orangutan “Cecep” is known to gesture to “give leaf” and Pantomime “leaf wipe dirt”. Other orangutans have been known to pantomime other actions, such as individuals or interacting with objects.


There have been accounts of orangutans engaging in deceptive behaviors, or fake behaviors, to outwit their partners or create false images. There have been accounts of orangutans “faking nice” to steal things, pretending to be injured to be taken out of cages, pretending to leave to fool guards, and pretending to be friendly to break into closed-off areas, and faking interest to steal researchers’ bags.

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