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Sex-specific social learning patterns found in young orangutans

Young male and female orangutans focus their social attention on different individuals to gain knowledge they can use later in life, according to a new study published by PLOS. Sex-specific social learning is needed to prepare the immature orangutans for adulthood. 

Young orangutans must acquire an extensive set of skills and knowledge through years of observational social learning, just like humans. There are notable behavioral differences between adult male and female orangutans, including sex-specific foraging patterns. In addition, males are far more solitary as adults compared to females. 

The researchers set out to investigate how the different life trajectories of adult orangutans relate to social interest and emerging ecological knowledge in juveniles. 

The team analyzed 15 years of detailed observational data, which included the social learning and dietary patterns of 50 immature orangutans in two wild Sumatran populations. 

Social interest was measured by the number of “peering events” directed at others, as well as the amount of time the juveniles spent in close proximity to others.

The study showed that young females direct most of their social attention toward their mothers, while young males prefer individuals other than their mothers. The experts report that by the end of the dependency period, females show a larger dietary overlap with their mothers than males.

When it comes to individuals aside from their mothers, males are most interested in immigrants, and females prefer neighbors.

According to the researchers, it may be more beneficial for the females to focus on acquiring local knowledge and skills because they tend to stay in the areas where they were born and settle in the same home range as their mothers. 

By contrast, knowledge from immigrants could be relevant in the areas to which young males will eventually disperse. 

“In our study we showed that immature orangutans show sex specific attentional preferences when observing role models other than their mothers,” said study lead author Dr. Caroline Schuppli of the Max-Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.

“Our results also provide evidence that these biases result in different learning outcomes and may thus be an important way for orangutans to learn sex-specific foraging patterns.” 

“All in all, these results highlight the importance of fine-grained social inputs during development for orangutans – the least sociable of all ape species, and thus likely also for other primates.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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