In the wild, orangutans are thought to live up to 60 years. However, to fully confirm this, field studies over multiple decades are needed. Orangutan mothers at Suaq give birth to their first baby around the age of 15-16 and raise their offspring mostly on their own, with no help from the father. They will nurse their babies for up to 8.5 years and have a new baby only every 7.5-9 years.

Eden at the age of 2 years. Photo credit: Sofia Vilela, November 2016.

Orangutan infancy lasts 8-10 years

Young orangutans at Suaq stay with their mothers for the first 10 years.

  • The first 6 months, orangutan babies are constantly carried by their mothers.
  • Only around the age of 6-7 months they start their first attempts to leave the body of their mother, which are still mostly prevented by their watchful mothers.
  • From the age of about one year on, infant orangutans will often climb around in the surrounding branches while their mother is feeding in a fruit tree.
  • After the age of 4 years, they will travel through the canopy on their own but remain in constant close association with their mother and are still occasionally carried and nursed.
Lilly at the age of 10, being playful. Photo credit: Caroline Schuppli, February 2011.

Juvenile orangutans still have to learn a lot

Around the age of 8 years, the younger sibling arrives.

  • Juvenile orangutans at Suaq stay with their mothers for another 1-2 years before they slowly start to separate for increasing amounts of time.
  • Orangutan mothers at Suaq are uniquely tolerant to their juvenile offspring and let them sleep in their night nest up to the age of 10.
  • Independent juveniles will spend most of their time in peer groups.
  • The long infant dependency provides the immature orangutans at Suaq with enough time to learn everything they need for survival.
  • Recent studies have shown that immature orangutans take 10-12 years until they reach competence in some of the skills they need to learn.
Lois playing with Ulysses. Photo credit: Caroline Schuppli, June 2013.

Suaq orangutans have many role models

Unlike immatures at other orangutan populations, immatures at Suaq not just have the opportunity to learn from their mothers but also from other individuals.

  • Mothers at Suaq often associate with other females and their offspring which gives their offspring the opportunity to interact with peers.
  • Likewise, juvenile individuals and adult males are among the mothers’ regular association partners.

With our current behavioral studies we are trying to find out how the difference in opportunities for social learning affects the development of the Suaq immatures.