Orangutan Bonnie surprises by whistling to her own tune

Thu Mar 5, 2009 7:16pm EST
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By Robert Muir

WASHINGTON (Reuters Life!) - Bonnie is like any other 32-year-old female orangutan in many ways. She's curious, gregarious, and likes nothing better than scouring her fellow orangutans for dead skin and parasites.

But there's one thing Bonnie does that has never been seen in an orangutan before. She whistles.

"She's been doing it for years and, we didn't realize really the significance until we started looking into other research and (found) she's the first documented, whistling orangutan that learned it on her own," said her keeper Erin Stromberg.

A video was shot at the whistling Bonnie at her home at Washington's National Zoo as part of a research project conducted late last year by The Great Ape Trust and the zoo itself.

The results were recently published in "Primates," an international journal providing a forum for studies on the relationship between primates, humans and other animals.

For great ape researchers, the results were startling.

The whistling video they believe shows that orangutans are capable of learning auditory behavior on their own and as a choice, rather than as a means to earn a reward after training.

Stromberg, who knows Bonnie well and was a key participant in the research project, says it shows orangutans could be anthropomorphically closer to humans than previously thought.   Continued...

<p>An undated handout photo shows Bonnie, the whistling orangutan from Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington.REUTERS/Jessie Cohen/Smithsonian's National Zoo/Handout</p>