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Video: Apes Play Charades

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Credit: Anne Russon

Who says orangutans can't talk with their hands? By analyzing 20 years of video footage culled from studies in Indonesia, researchers have found that forest-dwelling orangutans can act out words or phrases by gesturing, just like humans do. An orangutan will offer a leaf and mimic wiping something, for example, to get his partner to wipe his head clean with that leaf. And, as seen in this video, orangutans will excitedly swing a stick up and down on top of a coconut to say to a researcher, "Hey human, use your machete to cut up my dinner." The apes even pantomime to trick others: By gesturing that they're having a hard time getting into a termite mound for a snack, an orangutan can get some easy help, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. Scientists already knew that orangutans pantomime in captivity, but showing that they also do it in the wild tells us that they developed this form of communication on their own, and not just by imitating humans.

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