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13 Stunning Photos and Facts About Orangutans

For International Orangutan Day, here's a roundup up photos and facts about these amazing, endangered primates.

Borneo-Orang-Utan (Pongo pygmaeus) young male - Semenggoh Borneo Malaysia AsiaChristian Edelmann/shutterstock

Borneo orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)

One of three species of orangutan currently existing in the world, the Borneo orangutan is, as its name suggests, a native of the island of Borneo, located in the far south Pacific Ocean. Pongo pygmaeus has three subspecies, all of which inhabit rainforests as well as swamp, tropical, and mountain forests, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). And they’re all critically endangered, with only 104,700 total remaining in the wild. You may also be surprised to learn about these animals you never realized were endangered.

Portrait of male Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) in Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Sumatran orangutan is endemic to the north of Sumatra and is critically endangered.Don Mammoser/Shutterstock

Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii)

Nine individual populations of this species of orangutan roam through the broadleaf forests of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Smaller, lighter in color, with narrower faces and longer beards than their Borneo cousins, Pongo abelii is even more critically endangered, with a mere 7,500 individuals left in the wild. Only seven populations are actually considered “viable” in the long-term, meaning they face a very grave probability of extinction, just like these 14 other animals that could go extinct in your lifetime.

Tapanuli orangutan found to be a distinct species, Jakarta, IndonesiaBagus Indahono/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis)

In 2017, a brand new species of orangutan—photos of which are shown here in the hands of scientists and Indonesian officials—was identified. The rarest of all great apes, only 800 of these individuals live in about 475 square miles of forest habitat in North Sumatra. Incredibly, they’ve remained isolated from their neighbor Sumatran orangutans for as long as 20,000 years, WWF reports. They resemble them somewhat, only their hair is described as “frizzier” and their faces are smaller. These are facts you never knew about manatees.

Orangutan resting on branch in forestsirtravelalot/shutterstock

Tree lovers

No matter the species, there is one thing that bonds all orangutans and that is their extreme dependence on trees. In fact, according to LiveScience, they are the world’s largest arboreal mammals, spending much of their lives up in the leaves and branches. They sleep in tree nests at night, rest in tree nests during the day, and “travel by moving from one tree to another…usually avoid[ing] climbing down to the ground,” reports WWF.

Closeup of the foot of a Bornean Orangutan holding onto a branchMark Whiten/Shutterstock

Happy feet

Like humans, orangutans have opposable thumbs on their hands. Unlike humans, they also have opposable big toes on their tree-climbing-adapted feet, which allow them to swing through the trees—although, as Seaworld.org points out, both their thumbs and big toes are on the small side, so as not to interfere with all that swinging. Fingers and toes are also long and curved, the better to grasp branches with.

Close up of orangutans, selective focus. tristan tan/Shutterstock

Sometimes together…

Sumatran orangutans especially can have some close ties to other members of their species. The bond: food. As WWF explains, fig trees in their native habitats contain abundant fruit, which encourages communal eating. Depending on what’s available, orangutans also eat durian fruit, “young leaves, bark, flowers, honey, insects, vines, and the inner shoots of plants,” according to Orangutan Foundation International.

Orangutan isolated close up and beautifulL.A.Timony/shutterstock

…Mostly alone

For the most part, though, orangutans—especially males—are semi-solitary, an uncommon feature among great apes. Mothers are perpetually with their babies and may come together with other mother-baby groups to eat; and, reports the National Primate Research Center (NPRC), individual orangutans might band together to travel to an abundant food source. But otherwise, “Adult males and independent adolescents of both sexes range alone.”

Bornean Orangutan hanging from a tree while carrying a coconut sMark Whiten/Shutterstock

The benefits of solitude

The reason orangutans tend to wander around solo? It has to do with their girth and weight, which ranges from 100 to 220 pounds among the three species, says NPRC: “Because of their large size, they have high caloric needs and fruit is not uniformly available, spatially or temporally, in large enough amounts to permit permanent social groups.” (The one exception are those aforementioned fig trees.)

Portrait of a male orangutan. Close-up. Indonesia. The island of Kalimantan (Borneo). An excellent illustration.GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock

Mysterious males

While all orangutans have reddish fur and powerful limbs, a male of any species, for reasons unknown, may or may not develop a flange—the prominent cheek pads you see here—and a throat sac, which he uses to make verbalizations called “long calls,” according to WWF. These allow him to “advertise his location and wait…for receptive females to find him,” says NPRC. “Because females preferentially mate with flanged males, this process of sit-and-wait is effective for fully developed males.” Orangutans are only one of the animals that you didn’t know could talk.

Baby Orangutan PlayingWayneImage/Shutterstock

Mommy and me

Female orangutans give birth to one, occasionally two, babies at a time, and often have older babies still in their care; NPRC reports they can be instrumental in socializing younger siblings. For the first two months of a baby’s life, mother and offspring “never break contact;” in fact, juveniles may not begin to take exploratory trips away from their mothers until they are five years old. Other animals have tight and adorable, bonds with their moms, too.

Female orangutan with her baby in the rainforest of borneo michel arnault/Shutterstock

The tightest bond

“Orangutan mothers are [an] infants’ only means of transport, support, food, comfort, safety, and often the exclusive source for information and essential learning experiences,” according to Seaworld.org. Babies cling to their mothers’ chests for two years before learning to ride on their backs, which they might do on and off till they’re about seven years old. Females are adults at around 15 years of age, males around 20. The time investment a mother puts into her young explains why females give birth every seven to eight years—and why orangutan species are so vulnerable.

Female orangutan and her baby in the rainforest michel arnault/Shutterstock

A lot like humans

According to scientists, orangutans more than chimpanzees might be humans’ closest relatives. It’s not just because an orangutan named Rocky was the first animal to mimic human speech, as the BBC reported. But we also share 96 percent of our genetics, as well as enamel-covered molars in our mouths and similarly shaped shoulder blades, according to National Geographic. You can find evidence of your evolution from apes all over your body.

A Sumatran orangutan nibbles on a handful of seeds and stares wistfully into the distance.Luke Sampson 1992/shutterstock

Saving orangutans

With so many similarities between us, you’d think humans would be more invested in ensuring that orangutan species continue to thrive in our world. One of the greatest threats to these great apes is the palm oil industry; nearly 90 percent of palm oil exports “are derived from Malaysian and Indonesian plantations,” according to Seaworld.org, and “The same lowland rainforests the palm oil industry favors is the only remaining habitat for orangutans.” The most glaring fact of all: “[W]ithout urgent intervention, the palm oil trade could cause the extinction of…the orangutan…within 12 years.” If we do collectively change our ways, there’s still a chance orangutans could come back from the brink of extinction, like these 16 incredible animals.

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Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.