The Orangutan

 Asia, Endangered Species, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Orangutan
May 042010
Home – Borneo and Sumatra (South Pacific)
Habitat – Tropical forests
Niche – Arboreal herbivore
Favorite Food – Fruit (especially figs)
Height – Up to 4.5 feet
Weight – up to 300 pounds
Status – Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, Bornean orangutans endangered
Threats – Loss of Habitat, illegal pet trade, poaching

Of all the faces of the forest, few look so much like our own. The “Man of the Woods,” a great ape covered head to foot in thick red hair, lives in the forests of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in the South Pacific. He is the orangutan.

Orangutans are the largest apes on earth after the gorillas of Africa, but shaped much differently. Gorillas are heavy and stocky, suited for life on the floor of the dense jungle canopy. Orangutans are built for life in the trees above. Long limbs power these swinging great apes from tree to tree bent under their weight to shorten distances. Young orangutans are lighter and able to swing further than the oldest and heaviest who live life at a slower pace. In a way, the youngsters move like their slimmer cousins to the north, the gibbons.

The man of the woods doesn’t kill animals to eat unless you count insects. Most of what an orangutan puts in his mouth is fruit and he’s content with what the trees provide. Food, shelter, and recreation are all found in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra for these mostly solitary folk on a life journey that can last many decades.

The man of the woods can’t live without it, and there’s not much left. Many years ago, people set aside national parks to protect patches of forest from the fate they’d likely suffer if unprotected. For a while, the heat of fires and roar of power saws were kept at bay. But wads of cash under the table go far in the developing world. Those who can afford it have a taste for wooden furniture and palm oil, and when there’s demand, supply follows. On islands with small economies and high levels of poverty, timber and agriculture are crucial to those who call them home. Economies, laws, and livelihoods collide in this unique corner of the South Pacific. For the orangutan, things are complicated indeed.

There aren’t many men of the woods still living in the great Indonesian forests. On Sumatra, several thousand remain, enough to fill a small town in your own corner of America. In Borneo, tens of thousands of orangutans still roam the forests not yet felled. Things could be worse. 60,000 orangutans is better than 10. But the numbers aren’t going up.

*filmstrip photo provided by Chi King

The Mandrill

 Africa, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Mandrill
Nov 112009
photo provided courtesy of tibchris on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeWestern Africa
Habitattropical forest floor
Nichelarge omnivore
Favorite Foodfruit
Lengthup to 3 feet
Weightup to 80 pounds
StatusVulnerable to Extinction
Threatshunting, habitat destruction

The rainforests of Central Africa have long been known as dark, forbidding places. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was set in this otherworldly realm of dense vegetation and hidden dangers. A cryptid named Mokele-Mbembe reputedly lurks in the swamps of the Congo Basin, a lost relic from a distant time in the past. It is a land that is both massive and claustrophobic, a mix of enormous trees with thick underbrush. Many animals blend in among the foliage, but there is one animal that wants to be seent,  making its statement with bright, striking coloration under the trees.

Few animals of the Africa boast such unmistakable features as the mandrill. Sky-blue cheeks taper into its bright red nose sitting over a golden beard. The gaudy coloration of the males is their asset in the mating season, where they attempt to outlook and outdo other males in the quest for females, who are 1/3 the size. Pound for pound, male mandrills are the largest monkeys in the world. Unlike monkeys that dwell exclusively in trees, the mandrill’s legs are of equal length, perfectly adapted for running on all fours on the ground like baboons. However, a troop of mandrills will seek safety in the trees when night falls. This adaptation is especially important in a land where formidable predators hunt at night.

Mandrills are omnivorous and spend most of the day foraging on the forest floor for fruit, seeds, insects, fungi, roots,  and the occasional small animal. They live in groups called “troops” of about 20 individuals, with some large troops reaching as many as 250. Like baboons, Mandrill society is based around a hierarchy with the dominant male at the top. This male earns the right to mate with the females of the group until another male challenges his dominance. The size difference between male and female mandrills is partly explained through this hierarchy. Generally, males of mammal species that mate with many different females show a much greater size difference than those of species that pair for life.

Socializing helps bind mandrill troops together, and grooming is the most important social activity. Members of the troop will take turns picking insects and parastites from the backs of others when they are resting. Also, members will communicate with each other through grunts. These vocalizations help the group to be alerted of dangers and signal when to move on to a new area of forest. The troops move over great distances and will readily defend their territory against unwelcome outsiders. Males attempt to frighten enemies by “yawning” wide, brandishing their two and a half inch long incisors. If the sight of this alone is not enough to deter a foe, the mandrill will rush forward, barking and grunting loudly to scare it off.

Mandrills are rapidly disappearing in the forests of Cameroon and Gabon they have called home for thousands of years. Increased logging and poaching of these animals has cut their numbers significantly. Once common across the rainforests, mandrills are now vulnerable to extinction.

The Siamang

 Asia, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Siamang
Nov 062009
photo provided courtesy of jimbowen0306 on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSoutheast Asia
Habitattropical forest
Nichelarge omnivore (primarily herbivore)
Favorite Foodleaves
Heightup to 5 feet tall
Weightup to 33 pounds
StatusVulnerable to Extinction
Threatshabitat loss, poaching

It’s morning in the jungles of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Among the thousands of animal calls fighting for ear space in the dense forests, one stands out among the rest. Indeed, this animal’s deafening call would drown out even the roar of the African lion if put to the test. Able to be heard for over two miles through dense rainforest, the call of the siamang is the loudest of any land mammal on earth.

The siamang is a member of the gibbon family, a group of small, tree-dwelling apes that are known for their spectacular leaps and unrivaled agility among the dense upper canopy of the Asian rainforests. Swinging through the trees with a 5-foot arm span, the stocky, broad-chested siamang is the largest gibbon. These shaggy black apes live in the rainforests of Malaysia, Thailand, and Sumatra, sharing their range with a number of other gibbon species in the treetops.

The most striking feature of the siamang is the expandable flap of stretchy skin on its throat. The skin can be inflated the size of the animal’s entire head and acts as a resonator chamber, amplifying the piercing calls of the ape to ward off intruders and attract mates. The noisesome calls are primarily used to frighten other siamangs that have stumbled into a family’s territory, which can range up to 115 acres.

photo provided courtesy of Lara604 on Flickr Creative CommonsLike other gibbons and great apes, siamangs are social animals, forming small groups of around 5 animals. These family units are very cohesive, and a family member will rarely venture farther than 100 feet from its kin. As with other apes, grooming is the most important social bonding activity with siamangs. However, social interaction between the family unit is kept to a minimum, leaving most of the day open for eating and resting. Leaves are the siamang’s primary food, forming over half its diet. Fruit and insects form the other half, with some regional variation. Half of the siamang’s waking period from dawn until dusk is spent reasting in the trees, taking short siestas in between foragings.

Siamangs are monogamous, meaning they only mate with one partner during the 2-3 year mating cycle, and the mating pair remains together for life. As is the case with other monogamous mammals, there is very little difference between the sexes in terms of body size. Siamangs show an unusual amount of paternal care for a mammal, and the fathers take over care of the infant after about a year. Indeed, the adult male siamang is responsible for a juvenile’s increasing independence on its journey towards adulthood.

After about eight years of family care, the sexually mature siamang is eased out of its family unit and must strike out on its own. Males then begin a period of wandering in search of females and will call out into the forest to find a mate necessary to build a new family. In fact, the loud “singing” of siamangs is an important part of forging and maintaining the crucial pair bonds.

As the forests fall in the Malay Peninsula, so do the siamangs. As illegal logging, clearcutting, and palm oil plantations increase, the future of these magnificent apes grows increasingly in doubt. Without the trees to support them, the siamang’s call will go silent.