Great Ape Explorations in Washington, DC

By: and Alexandra Kralick

July 17, 2018

A. Kralick examining orangutan bones in the Smithsonian NMNH’s mammals collection. Photo by Janet Monge.

In curly browned script, on paper flaking in my hands, the inscription next to the specimen number read, “the leg and jaw were broken by fall from trees when shot. Had a young one with her.” Putting down W. L. Abott’s 1907 record book, I ran to the post-crania room and pulled out her bones. Sure enough, the tibia and fibula were cleanly broken. In the crania room, her mandible was cracked. There were holes in the preserved skin where the bones would have stuck out of the skin upon falling. This poor female orangutan suffered a painful death as a result of the endeavors of W. L. Abott. Yet, this man’s cruelty, and that of men like him who killed and sent back animals to museums in the name of science, resulted in most of the orangutans in collections today, and allows for work that would not otherwise be possible. While we originally entered the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) this summer to pull out the orangutan skins, skulls, and skeletons, to understand the ways in which the patterns of orangutan growth and development differ from that of humans, we ended up humanizing them in the process.

Lots of great ape skeletal research looks at one body part exclusively, so the skulls are kept in a completely different room from the rest of the body. While this usually makes research easier, it has resulted in many failing to notice how all the parts of the body grow and develop in comparison to one another. Orangutan males can vary widely in their skeletal development in interesting ways. Further, orangutans, like chimpanzees, finish fusing their bones after they have already completed developing their teeth. This differs from humans, who generally complete dental and skeletal growth around the same age.

Not only did Janet Monge and I take an integrative approach to the secondary sexual characteristics on the skin and the growth and development of the dentition and skeleton, but we met with Dr. Meredith Bastian, Curator of Primates from the National Zoo and a former student of Dr. Monge, discuss orangutans at the July 4th parade at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and took a behind-the-scenes tour of the primates at the National Zoo.

These magnificently intelligent creatures could respond to her request to show her their toes, bellies, and make specific gestures. They uniquely responded to our presence, some with excitement, one with frustration at the lack of more attention–expressed with a swift stream of water squirted directly at Dr. Monge! These living orangutans reminded us of the incredible capacity of the creatures we were studying. We cannot do science on one part of the body in isolation, nor can we interpret an animal without regard to the life that it led.

As a note, these living creatures in the wild are headed towards extinction because of deforestation, mostly for the production of palm oil, which ends up in all sorts of products, from packaged foods to hair products. You can help prevent the extinction of these brilliant creatures and allow for future scientific research into the mysteries of their growth and development by purchasing products with sustainable palm oil (learn more and search your favorite companies here).

While modern industry is leading to the deaths of orangutans, early 20th century scientists brutally killed numerous creatures in the pursuit of scientific information. While these collection techniques were terribly sad, they often resulted in all we have in museums to learn about the anatomy of great apes, other than recent captive donations or the rare field collection. The female who fell from a tree, and many orangutans like her, did not die in vain. Their bodies can help us uncover the secrets to the evolution of a species rapidly heading towards extinction.

A Kralick examining orangutan bones in the Smithsonian NMNH’s mammals collection. Photo by Janet Monge.

J. Monge and A Kralick in front of an orangutan at the National Zoo. Photo by M. Bastian.
A. Kralick, M. Bastian (Curator of Primates at the National Zoo), and J. Monge. Photo by author.