Monthly Archives: December 2014

Tuanan Orangutan Research Project (TORP) welcomes a new member to the orangutan population – Meet Moby!!!

The Tuanan team is very excited about the latest birth in the population of orangutans that we study. Orangutans in Borneo give birth every 6-8 years, so they have what we call a very slow life history. It takes long-term studies to estimate interbirth intervals. We have been working in Tuanan since 2003, and we are just starting to obtain an understanding of their interbirth intervals (IBIs).

We first found Mindy in July 2003. At the time, she had an infant, Milo (a female)- we estimated her to be about 2 yrs old. Milo is now on her own and likely will have her own offspring soon. We have followed Mindy regularly since July 2003. She gave birth to Mawas (a female) in July of 2008, and thus an IBI of about 7 years. Milo soon was on her own although does come together with mom once in a while. Mawas is now about 6 years and 6 months old. The TORP team found Mindy on December 12, 2014 with what looks like a 2-3 week old infant. You can see the pictures below. Mawas is still with Mindy, and Mindy is very tolerant of Mawas being close to Moby.

This is a great indicator that our population is healthy, as our females continue to reproduce. Great news from the forest and to start the New Year!!!! And a big Thanks to Caroline and the TORP team for sending pictures and the news!

Moby clings to Mindy (Photo by Caroline Schuppli)

Moby clings to Mindy (Photo by Caroline Schuppli)

Mindy Inspects her new infant Moby (Photo by Caroline Schuppli)

Mindy Inspects her new infant Moby (Photo by Caroline Schuppli)

Big sister Mawas with mom and Moby (Photo by Abuk)

Big sister Mawas with mom and Moby (Photo by Abuk)


Life in the Field by Timothy Bransford (Rutgers University Doctoral Student)

Juni and Jane

Jane tries to remove a leaf from mom’s (Juni) mouth. Photo by Erin Vogel

Tuanan is one of the premier wild orangutan research sites in the world.  It is located in a peat swamp forest (one of the most important carbon sinks in the world) and has an incredibly high density of orangutans.  Still, the habitat at Tuanan is relatively marginal compared to many other tropical forests and orangutans, in general, have several adaptations to survive in this type of environment.  One characteristic is an incredibly long period of juvenile dependency: an orangutan infant at Tuanan will nurse for up to 5 years and stay with its mother for up to 8 years!  My graduate research aims to explore how an orangutan mother (orangutans are the largest arboreal mammal in the world) can survive through periods of fruit scarcity while supporting an infant for such a long period. What is her energetic status and how does it vary on a day-to-day or seasonal basis?  Are there any activities that help her survive along the way, such as eating particular foods at particular infant developmental stages?

Generally speaking, my research is broken up into several parts.  First, there is the behavioral observation of orangutans, where my volunteer, Rumaan, our amazing team of local Indonesian assistants, or I spend an entire day following a mother orangutan, taking special note of what she eats and for how long, how much time she rests, and how much time she spends moving between feeding/resting locations.  The behavioral observations are the base information we need to assess how orangutan mothers are doing.

urine sample

Urine sample collected in the early morning. © Erin Vogel

Idun collecting urine

TORP Field Assistant Idun collecting the first morning urine void

A second part is collecting the urine from the mothers we follow.  Urine is a gold mine when it comes to information about the body.  As you can probably guess, my focus is on the energetic information found in urinary ketones (which show fat catabolism), C-peptide of insulin (which show energetic status), cortisol (which show energetic stress), and creatinine (which show muscle mass loss).  Most of these analyses take place back at Rutgers, though.


Tim Bransford climbing a tree to collect fruit samples


Tim taking a break from collecting fruit samples and looking out over the forest

The third part, and the most exciting to do in the field, is the sampling of the food items that the orangutans eat.  This can include anything from leaves to fruit to bark to insects.  Unless we collect samples as the orangutans drop them while they eat, most of the time we have to climb trees to get what we need.  The trees can be anywhere from 10 meters to 30 meters high, and for me, the higher the tree the more fun I have.  Once we collect the sample, we must take it back to camp for processing, which includes cutting them into tiny pieces and drying it so we can have them analyzed for their nutritional components (protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber).

I am a problem-solver at heart and drying food samples requires a ton of problem solving (especially ripe fruits because they have so much water in them, up to 99%).  There are several competing elements to drying fruit, and temperature is the most important factor involved.  To preserve the nutritional information in a sample, you have to maintain a relatively low drying temperature.  Unfortunately, low temperatures mean longer drying times and longer drying times mean more exposure to humidity and the potential for mold.  In the past, we have used kerosene ovens to dry samples, but the temperature is hard to control and the wicks must be monitored closely.  This year, I brought with me a food dehydrator and it has revolutionized the process.  The only problem is that for it to run the required amount of time, we need a constant power source (the camp generator is only on for five hours a day).  Enters one of my favorite hobbies…building stuff.  In order to solve the power supply problem, my friend Rahmatdi, Rumaan, and I built a generator with a 3000W alternator and a 6.5hp small engine.  Rumaan and I also built a nice platform for the generator, which is running smoothly as I write.tims fruit dryer motor

Field work requires a lot of thinking outside the box.  Every week brings with it a new obstacle to overcome and being in such a remote location means one has to understand what they have available and think of the best possible solution.  This is my favorite part of field work.  My least favorite part: flies and mosquitos, but who can really blame me on that one?

tim planting tree

Tim Bransford started his doctoral studies at Rutgers University in Evolutionary Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology in 2012. He is spending 14 months in Indonesia conducting his dissertation field work funded by USAID. Here Tim is planting trees with local school children as part of TORP’s environmental education project.

Tuanan Orangutan Research Project Brings the Classroom to the Forest! By Dr. Wendy Erb

This June, my colleagues and I from Rutgers University and Universitas Nasional Jakarta launched a new study abroad program aimed at building bridges between Indonesian and American undergraduates, while teaching students about the myriad conservation issues and challenges facing Indonesia’s unique and endangered plants, animals, and ecosystems. This program was part of a USAID funded initiative to train Rutgers and Indonesian students together in tropical ecology and primatology. With 20 students in tow, we trekked from Java to Borneo and back over the course of three weeks, immersing ourselves in each of the local cultures and habitats we visited. One of themes of the course was the role of local communities in conservation. At each of our stops, there was an active conservation program engaging local stakeholders, but the degree of their involvement and impact varied; and students wondered about how people could be encouraged to “care” more about the nature they lived right next to.



Teachers, students, and Tuanan staff for study abroad program “Primates, Ecology, and Conservation in Indonesia” (photo courtesy of Erin Vogel)

This question led us to some lively discussions in which both Indonesian and American students shared personal stories about the development of their own “eco-consciousness”. For most, their interest in conservation was rooted in one or more first-hand experiences connecting with nature. Hearing the students’ stories reinforced one of my personal beliefs – that to truly appreciate and understand the natural world and our connection to it, one has to see it, feel it, and experience it. The nature we learn about in the classroom and from books is otherwise an abstract concept, and one that often emphasizes the division between humans and the natural world – culture versus nature, rather than part of it.


Chatting about orangutan family relationships at camp


These experiences and observations inspired me to see what would happen if I brought a bunch of Indonesian school children to the forest. I’d already been teaching kids at the local elementary school near the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station about forest conservation over the last year, but we had never ventured into the forest together. So, this August I discussed the possibility of bringing the Tuanan Elementary School students to the forest on short hikes with the local environmental education program teacher, Ratna Wati. She was very enthusiastic about the idea, and promptly (once we had permission from their parents) hiked the whole class into camp early one morning. We started the day with a brief discussion about the ecology of peatland forest, and why it’s such an important ecosystem to protect. We also talked about the behavior and ecology of orangutans, and students learned about the family relationships among the orangutans at Tuanan, including the mother and daughter (Mindy and Mawas) we were going to follow that day. The students were engaged in the discussion, but I could tell they were eager to start our adventure together.


So once they were briefed on forest safety and etiquette, we suited up and headed out – me in front, Ratna in back, and the kids lined up between us in two neat rows with the “buddy system”. We had to take the long, slow, roundabout path to our destination, while we waited for an agitated flanged male to leave the vicinity of Mindy and Mawas. Even these gentle giants are sometimes known to throw branches and push over dead trees when stressed or disturbed, and we didn’t want to take any chances with the little ones. Besides, they were already terrified by his long calls – each one resulting in a chorus of screams, and the rapid formation of a tight huddle around me. While we waited for the green light from the research team that was following the orangutans, we wandered the trails in search of orangutan foods to identify and taste test. The kids really enjoyed this activity, eagerly grabbing for every leaf, flower, and fruit I picked up. But the amazing thing was how quickly they assimilated the names of these plants, and how excited they were to point out the ones they’d learned. They were really connecting with the forest, beaming with smiles and brimming with excitement – and it happened within a matter of minutes!

EE Forest Walk Sep 2014_rejpg

Catching a glimpse of wild orangutans, for some, for the first time


By the time we got to the orangutans, they were still excited, and really did seem delighted to see mother and daughter up close (especially when it was their turn to try the binoculars). But the orangutans offered little entertainment during their midday siesta, and when the kids started to get antsy, we decided to head home. On our return to camp, I spotted a giant millipede resting on a tree trunk, and gently picked it up to show the kids. They immediately panicked, screamed, and again moved into a tight huddle – only this time away from me. I calmly explained that this was a harmless creature, that its tiny mouth couldn’t bite them, and that its intimidatingly numerous legs actually provided a nice massage. With a bit of coaxing, the first kid approached to nervously just-barely touch the millipede, accompanied by a shriek of fear and excitement. Within moments, the rest of the children were approaching to try the experiment too – gradually extending the duration of contact with the massive arthropod, until they were ready to hold it themselves. They giggled and squealed with delight as its undulating appendages tickled their skin. It was incredible to see how quickly their fear vanished, replaced by curiosity, awe, and affection. As the kids headed home, I asked them each to draw me a picture depicting the day’s experience. Although a few drew orangutans, and some drew their friends, all but the youngest of them drew their up-close encounter with a giant millipede!

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Some brave souls try their hand at petting a giant millipede


After the success of our inaugural run, we decided to try again, this time inviting more children and recruiting some of the local research team members to join us. Once again, the children filed into camp bright and early, and we started with a chat about peatlands and the orangutans – the veteran kids showing off their knowledge to the newcomers. And once we were in the forest, they were so proud to identify the trees we had learned on our last excursion. But they were thirsty to learn more, stopping at every other tree and liana to ask what it was. Some of their inquiries exceeded my own botanical knowledge, so I was grateful that two of the community members had joined us, and could pass on this local knowledge directly to the children. Once again, I was awed by the rapid transformation of the first-time kids: the forest had all at once evolved from an uninteresting, irrelevant, and scary place into one for exploration, discovery, and inspiration. We are very encouraged by these first two runs, and hope to implement regular forest trips into the curriculum, and to invite more children from additional communities to join.

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We love exploring the forest together!! Dr. Wendy Erb, Charles, Idun and Suwi (TORP Assistants) take the kids into the forest again!


My colleagues – Drs. Erin Vogel, Jito Sugardjito, and Suci Utami-Atmoko – and I were recently awarded a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund to support activities aimed at supporting environmental education and engaging the surrounding communities in conservation. We are very much looking forward to getting our hands dirty in the forest with these amazing kids! Stay tuned!