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Keywords:

  • food transfer;
  • social learning;
  • parental investment;
  • great apes;
  • development;
  • food processing

Abstract

Transfer of solid food from mothers or other adults to dependent offspring is commonly observed in various primate species and both nutritional and informational benefits have been proposed to explain the function of such food sharing. Predictions from these hypotheses are tested using observational data on wild orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) at Tuanan, Central Borneo, Indonesia. In 1,145 hr of focal observation and 458 recorded food interactions between four pairs of females with offspring it was found that virtually all transfers were initiated by the offspring and that younger infants solicited food more often and did so for a greater variety of items than older offspring. All offspring primarily solicited food that was difficult to process, i.e., inaccessible to them. Furthermore, the amount of food solicitation was negatively correlated with ecological competence. Hence food sharing seemed to be related to an offspring's skill level, as suggested by the informational hypothesis. In contrast, offspring did not solicit high-quality items more than low-quality items and food sharing did not peak around the age of weaning, as predicted by the nutritional hypothesis. Mothers were usually passively tolerant, allowing offspring to take food but hardly ever provisioned. Parent–offspring conflict concerning food sharing was only observed well after weaning. Thus, by taking food directly from the mother, young orangutans were able to obtain information about the affordances and nutritional value of food items that were otherwise out of their reach and could familiarize themselves with the mother's diet. In species such as orangutans or other apes, characterized by a broad diet that requires extractive foraging, informational food transfer may be vital for an immature to acquire complex feeding skills and adult diet. Am. J. Primatol. 70:533–541, 2008. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.