Great apes are well known for their dexterous skills in the wild, making nests and using tools to aid in their lives. One particular female orangutan has taken these skills a step further and has become a master of tying knots.
According to a report by Live Science, apes are known to create spears to hunt small prey, use tools to construct comfortable nests and use leaves as umbrellas when it rains. However, normally it is only humans that have the ability to tie knots.
However, in research by various experts, several of the so-called “talking apes” (those who use sign language to communicate with us) who are in rehabilitation centers or zoos have developed the ability to untie knots. It turns out some can even tie them from scratch.
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Enter Wattana, an orangutan who was previously living in a small community of apes in the heart of Paris, in what is among the oldest zoos in the world. The Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Garden Zoo) at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris was reportedly founded at the end of the 18th century.
Wattana was born in Antwerp Zoo in Belgium on November 17, 1995. Reportedly, the ape was transferred soon after her birth to Stuttgart Zoo in Germany where she was reared by zookeepers and then traveled to Paris in May 1998.
According to Chris Herzfeld of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and Dominique Lestel, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Wattana is a true knot-tying genius. They said they gave the orangutan rolls of paper, laced shoes, pieces of garden hose and strings and the ape made knots using all of those materials.
Reportedly, Wattana was not rewarded in any way, nor was she encouraged to tie the knots, but she continued anyway, sometimes even preferring to finish her current knot rather than eat her food.
Reportedly, she was never shown how to make a knot, but as soon as she gets the materials, Wattana begins to manipulate them to create knots. She then ties and unties several knots and reportedly isn’t happy to make only a simple knot. Reportedly she ties double, or even triple, complex knots.
In the past, Wattana has even created a type of “necklace” made from bamboo pieces, beads or small cardboard tubes and has even woven and tied shoes, using their laces, around a piece of hose. Once complete, she placed the hose around her shoulders, with the shoes hanging on either side of her neck.
Creative by nature, Wattana interweaves various materials, creating many knots next to each other. Reportedly the inventive orangutan has even used the iron rings, wire mesh or the wooden poles in her enclosure to make knots.
She doesn’t just do this with her hands and is what is termed a “quadrumana,” meaning she ties knots with her hands and her feet, sometimes involving her mouth in the skill.
However, despite her incredible dexterity and technical abilities, experts still do not understand why Wattana ties knots or how she learned the skill.
In their investigations, Herzfeld and Lestel reviewed all the literature relating to the subject with recognized great ape specialists and eventually found around 20 knot-tying apes. Reportedly, six of these are “talking apes” and around three-quarters of the apes are females.
Reportedly, all the knot-tying apes were reared by humans, a state that allows great apes to access substantial new learning opportunities. When in captivity, orangutans have more free time than they would have in the wild and also have access to more materials with which to experiment.
They see the knots in their enclosure, on humans’ boots and in different aspects of the human experience and are surrounded by more human beings than apes. In other words, they literally “ape” us, observing and copying our skills, finding us fascinating to emulate.
Reportedly, when Wattana was still an infant, the zoo keepers entered her enclosure to care for the three young orangutans living in the Paris zoo at that time. She apparently observed the zoo keepers closely, especially when they had to retie their shoelaces, after the small orangutans had untied them.
According to several primatologists, orangutans are fascinated by bootlaces, and Wattana was no exception. As a young ape, she would get very close to the shoes and avidly watch how the laces were tied. She then went on to recreate the situation herself, practicing wherever possible and ending up being able to make knots.
According to the experts, knot tying by orangutans and other great apes is closely related to their nest building. The apes use a mixture of strings, fibers and other soft materials to create their nests. In fact in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, anthropologist Tim Ingold of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland said scientists should regard nest-making rather as the process of “weaving.” According to Ingold, these nest-building skills may have led to the necessary physical and cognitive abilities to make and use tools.
In Wattana’s case her skill is related to pleasure – she enjoys making the knots, which has led to her becoming an expert at the skill.
Wattana is no longer living in the heart of Paris and is now residing at the Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands, but she still enjoys making knots. The last time Herzfeld and Lestel visited the female orangutan, they gave her a red ribbon and went away. Reportedly when they came back, she had used the ribbon to make a knot on the mesh or her enclosure.
Readers can enjoy a photo gallery of Wattana creating knots on the Live Science website.