December 2011 Features

A Passion for Orangutans

Q & A with Meredith Bastian ’00, Curator of Primates at the Philadelphia Zoo

 Interviewed by Dorothy Lehman Hoerr

What drives you to study animals?


Suni, a wild Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii), can give scientists clues to innovative behaviors, the basis for cultural behavior.

I love animals, especially the great apes. I love being close to them. There’s something very humbling about being particularly close to giant male orangs because they could easily kill you, but then they don’t as long as you show the proper behavior. Sometimes very big males run up to you, and you just have to stand there and act submissive and not run away. I grew up in Washington, D.C., so I spent a lot of time at the zoo, mostly in the primate areas. In second grade, I interviewed the curator of primates there for a project I was doing on the difference between mountain and lowland gorillas.

And your first encounter with a wild orangutan?

My first encounter with a wild orangutan was with an adult female and her infant daughter. I followed them from their morning to night nest. The first time I found a wild male orangutan I was bird watching on my day off. I was walking through the forest; I didn’t even have my machete with me. I just had a pair of binoculars. I heard a long call—a loud vocalization made by big males. I heard it about a kilometer away. I went toward the long call. And then all of a sudden out of the trees comes this giant male orangutan. He was throwing trees and branches; we call them branch missiles. I dodged the branch missiles and then just ended up sitting down on the ground because I knew not to run away. He came really, really close and stared at me. And then he backed away and ran away on the ground. I found him again about an hour later and followed him until he made his night nest.

How did you get started?

I started taking courses on great apes at the National Zoo in elementary school, but my first field experience was in 2002 when I worked as a field assistant studying white-handed gibbons in Thailand. It was a wonderful experience, although I did almost lose my left leg from a rare bacterial infection that managed to get into my leg through a leech bite.

In Indonesia, you collected data at Tuanan and built your own site at Sungai Lading. What were you looking for?

I wanted to study genetically similar orangutan populations that lived in virtually identical habitats to see if there were differences in diet and behavior. There were! We found some really interesting behavioral differences between the Tuanan and Sungai Lading orangutan populations in Central Borneo. At Tuanan, there was much more female-to-female association than at Sungai Lading. That’s how you can judge opportunities for social learning, which is the basis for culture. We also found more innovative behaviors at Tuanan. Basically, innovative behavior is the basis for cultural behavior.

What’s the significance of your findings?

We were able to show that in fact there were behaviors that differed, that simply didn’t exist in one orangutan population but which were regularly exhibited by genetically-similar orangutans in other populations. What accounts for behavioral differences in these animals is differences in what individual animals learn from one another socially in each population.

How do you collect data on animals?


Meredith Bastian ’00 wades through a swamp to get to her research site in the rotan forest section of Sungai Lading in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

You wake up around 3 a.m. Then you need to get to the nest before the focal orangutan wakes up. It’s still dark and you walk with your headlamp on through the forest and a swamp until you arrive at the nest (which is sometimes several kilometers from camp). You wait for them to wake up and follow them from their morning nest to when they make a night nest or return to repair an old one. We would get home usually at 6 or 7, just in time for us to turn on the generator and go to sleep. Then do that all over again the next day. I loved it, but it’s exhausting, especially in the swamp forests, which are prime habitat for orangutans but quite treacherous and inhospitable to their human observers.

Sounds like an extreme camping trip—

My forest was particularly difficult. A lot of the time it was flooded. It would be flooded up to our chests sometimes. You had to hold your backpack above your head. I have had malaria and six kinds of typhoid. Then I became severely allergic to the trees there. There weren’t any doctors immediately available. The only way you could communicate was by radio in decent weather to other parts of Indonesia, but cell phones didn’t work. But I loved it and have always felt more at home in the jungle than in civilization.

You came home in 2010.

I came back to the U.S. in 2010 to start my current job. I really enjoyed the forest, but my tree allergies were getting pretty extreme and the bureaucracy can be very difficult. I would spend months at a time just waiting for permits. I found out just last year that my site was burned down.

What led you to the Philadelphia Zoo?

I wanted to have a job that was as relevant as possible to my field background. I knew I didn’t want a desk job. I prefer to be outside and close to wild animals as much as possible. And this is a particularly good zoo with a considerable focus on the conserva­tion of endangered wild animal populations.

Do you miss working in the field?

I miss it every day. Listening to the forest wake up—you start to hear gibbons while it’s still dark and they are waking up from their night tree, starting to duet. You start to hear all of the various insects, mostly the cicadas. And sometimes you hear the orangutans snoring while you wait under their nest for them to wake up. It’s really, really beautiful. There’s just nothing quite like it in the city.