Intentional Behavior and Intentional Communication in Young Free-Ranging Orangutans


  • Kim A. Bard

    Corresponding author
    1. Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Emory University
      Address reprint requests to: Kim A. Bard, Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322.
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  • This study is based on a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the Ph.D. degree in the Department of Psychology, Georgia State University. An earlier version of this article was presented at the workshop entitled “Comparative Cognitive Development in Anthropoid Apes” held in Madrid, Spain, April 1988. The funding for the fieldwork was provided by the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation and was conducted at the camp of Dr. Biruté Galdikas in the Tanjung Puting Reserve, Kalimantan Tengah, Indonesia. My Indonesian sponsors were the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) and the Nature Protection and Wildlife Management Department of the Forestry (PHPA). Partial funding for the analysis was provided by Georgia State University and by NIH grants RR-00165 from the National Center for Research Resources to the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center of Emory University, RR-03591 to R. B. Swenson, and RR-06158 to K. A. Bard. The Yerkes Center is fully accredited by the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. Many people made significant contributions to the research through generous loans or gifts of their resources or time. In particular, I am grateful to Neil Belman, Jim Murphy, Lisa Jones, Ellen Bradfield, Gillian Webb-Gannon, Frank Kiernan, Steve and Ernie Rosenbaum, Jim Young, Josh Schneider, Nellie Johns, Kenneth G. Gould, Biruté Galdikas, and Frederick A. King. In addition, I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers and the following people for their helpful comments on one or more versions of the written work: Jeremy Dahl, Mike Tomasello, Duane Rumbaugh, Lauren Adamson, Ron Nadler, Sal Macias, Carolyn Fort, Georgetta Cannon, Bill Hopkins, and, especially, Roger Bakeman.

Address reprint requests to: Kim A. Bard, Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322.


The goal of this study was to describe the ontogeny of the manipulation of an animate object (i.e., the mother) by young free-ranging orangutans within the context of food sharing. The food-sharing context is an important one in the development of object manipulation skills and social communication. 5 orangutans, ranging in age from 1 month to 5 years, were videotaped with their biological mothers for 18 hours over the course of 9 months. Systematic coding of the videotapes revealed that even young orangutans, 1-6 months old, used intentional (i.e., goal-directed) behaviors. When young orangutans directed behavior toward the mother in addition to the goal object then maternal responses were positive, resulting in the infant obtaining the food. Intentional communication, evident in gestures and consisting of an abbreviated action directed toward the mother, was found in the 3 oldest orangutans (21/2, 31/2, and 5 years of age). Cognitive competence and behavioral performance are considered from the developmental perspectives of Piaget and prelinguistic communication. The ability to use a communicative gesture as an intermediate means in the coordination of actions on a social agent with actions on an object is evident in young orangutans.