Orangutans at Miami zoo use iPads to communicate

Associated Press Published: May 9, 2012
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"We're putting together what we're calling primate playdates or red ape rendezvous, which is to say connecting the orangutans in different facilities," Zimmerman said. "We're looking at a larger picture."

When it comes to orangutans, the iPad itself has limitations. First, the relatively small screen causes orangutans to hit the wrong buttons sometimes. Also, the touchscreen won't register if they try to use their fingernails. Most importantly, the devices are just too fragile to actually hand over to the apes — the trainers must hold them.

"If I gave them the iPad, I could just basically hand them $600 and say, 'Go have fun,'" Jacobs said. "So until we come up with a better screen or a better case, I'm going to hold onto the iPad."

If Jacobs gets her way, a more secure interface might not be far off. The long-term plan is to set up a larger, orangutan-proof screen in the holding area, along with another screen outside for guests. They would ask the orangutans questions and the apes could respond.

"It's really just a matter of getting the technology and equipment here," Jacobs said. "There's not a doubt in my mind that they could do it and would be marvelous at it, and I think the public would absolutely love it."

It's important to note that training the orangutans isn't done to entertain Jungle Island workers or guests. Because the animals are so intelligent, Jacobs said their minds must be kept active to prevent them from getting bored or depressed. The challenge is making the enrichment activities enjoyable.

"They need a lot of stimulation," Jacobs said. "Training isn't mandatory, but they love it."

Scientist and conservationist Birute Mary Galdikas, founder of Orangutan Foundation International, said orangutans are among the most intelligent animals. Orangutans in the wild, where Galdikas has studied the apes for more than four decades, routinely use tools to scratch themselves, swat insects and create simple shelters. In captivity, Galdikas said orangutans have demonstrated remarkable creative-thinking skills, specifically in their ability to escape enclosures.

"Anything that Jungle Island can do to help their orangutans while away the day is to be commended," Galdikas said. "IPads seem to work for humans. It's not surprising that orangutans, who share 97 percent of their genetic material with humans, like them, too."

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