Pongo abeliiSumatran orangutan

Geographic Range

Sumatran orangutans inhabit the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia. These orangutans have been restricted to the northern tip of Sumatra in fragmented forest. Logging has severely limited the range of this species. (Rijksen, 1978; Singleton and van Schaik, 2002; "Sumatran orangutan", 2007)


Sumatran orangutans are found in primary tropical lowland forests, including mangrove, swamp forests, and riparian forests. They live almost completely in the trees, building nests in which they nap or sleep for the night. Preferred elevations are 200 to 400 m, the area in which their preferred fruiting trees occur, but Sumatran orangutans can be found up to 1,000 to 1,500 m. (Rijksen, et al., 2003)

  • Range elevation
    200 to 1,500 m
    656.17 to ft

Physical Description

Sumatran orangutans are the largest non-human primates in Asia and the largest arboreal primates. They have long, fine red hair on their bodies and faces. Males have large cheek pads that are covered in a fine white hairs.The arm span, from finger tip to finger tip, is 2.25 m. The legs are small and weak compared to their muscular arms. There is sexual dimorphism between males and females. Female weights range from 30 to 50 kg and they can reach 1.3 m tall. Male weights range from 50 to 90 kg and reach a height of 1.8 m. Some old males may get too large to move around in trees easily and may have to resort to walking on the ground. (Maple, 1980; Rijksen, et al., 2003; Sumatran Orangutan Society, 2007; "Sumatran Orangutan- Population & Distribution", 2007)

Sumatran orangutans may be distinguished from Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) by their longer fur, more slender build, white hairs on the face and groin, and long beards on both males and females, but molecular characters are considered most definitive. (Cocks, 2003)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • sexes shaped differently
  • ornamentation
  • Range mass
    30 to 90 kg
    66.08 to 198.24 lb
  • Range length
    1.3 to 1.8 m
    4.27 to 5.91 ft


The primary mating tactic involves "harassment" of female Sumatran orangutans by sub-adult males and adult males. Most harassment involves sub-adult males; females are less likely to mate with them, as compared to large adult males. Females are cornered by sub-adult males and may be raped by them; these sub-adult males may also take a female's young from her if they think it will make her more willing or available to mate.

Female orangutans have learned strategic ways to avoid or reduce harassment. The first method is a social tactic, where females form non-mating parties with adult male orangutans that reside in their area, reducing attacks from sub-adult males. Another is female-female bonding, where females alone form alliances to protect themselves against sub-adult males.

Harassment has also increased in the last decade due to habitat loss from illegal logging. More orangutans are forced into too small of an area, increasing agonistic interactions. (Fox, 2002)

Most mating occurs in the heaviest fruiting months. There is large variability in the amount of fruit from season to season. Highest fruiting periods happen during rainy seasons (December to May). Mast fruiting years, in which most of the trees of a single species fruit synchronously, occur every 2 to 10 years. Sumatran orangutan breeding is most intense in mast years. Any female who is not currently caring for offspring (pre-weaning) is available to mate. Females normally mate with the adult male whose large territory they live in, but chance encounters can happen in high fruiting seasons when many orangutans gather to feed. Females give birth to one young, twinning occurs rarely. (Wich, et al., 2004; Fox, 2002; Wich, et al., 2004)

Adult female Sumatran orangutans become sexually active at the average age of 12.3 yrs and will produce their first offspring soon after. Male Sumatran orangutans are fully mature at an average age of 19 years. (Fox, 2002; Wich, et al., 2004)

  • Breeding interval
    Interbirth intervals are 3 to 4 years.
  • Breeding season
    Rainy seasons: December and May
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 2
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    227 to 275 days
  • Average weaning age
    48 months
  • Range time to independence
    8 to 9 years
  • Average time to independence
    9.3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    9 to 15.5 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    12.3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    15 to 24 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    19 years

After a female orangutan has given birth, her next 8 to 9 years are devoted to her offspring's survival. Infant and juvenile orangutans must learn everything (feeding, social behaviors, etc.) from their mothers. Mothers provide young orangutans with food until they have learned to distinguish different types of food. Males do not play a role in offspring care. Once fully developed, a male will leave his mother to find his own territory. A developed, independent young female will either disperse or take up residence near her mother's territory. (Fox, 2002; Wich, et al., 2004)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents
  • extended period of juvenile learning


Female life spans range from 44 to 53 years in the wild. There have been no reports documenting the onset of menopause and females seem to be capable of giving birth up to 51 to 53 years old. Male life spans are slightly longer, 47 to 58 years. Males are still considered healthy at these late ages by the tightness of their cheek pads and absence of bald spots. A captive female Sumatran orangutan lived to 55 years at the Miami Zoo. (Rijksen, 1978; Rijksen, et al., 2003)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    44 to 58 years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    55 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    58 (high) years


Wild orangutans are almost completely arboreal except for occasional forays on the ground. Exceptionally large males spend more time traveling on the ground, possibly because many trees cannot sustain their weight. Sumatran orangutans are active during the day and build new nests in trees each night in which to sleep. Nests are built with bent branches, sticks, and leaves. Young orangutans use brachiation extensively, but older, larger orangutans tend to use hand over hand motion. Sumatran orangutans are more social than Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), spending more time in small groups. (Maple, 1980)

Grooming is a major source of social interaction in most primates, but there are few grooming techniques used by Sumatran orangutans, which are more solitary. Females occasionally scratch and preen each other. Social grooming has only been documented on the upper part of the body. Mother-offspring grooming has only been seen in zoos. In this case, most mothers have to hold down their offspring once the young are capable of independent locomotion. They also cut toenails and fingernails with their teeth. Most mother-offspring grooming is done by mouth; hands are rarely used. When grooming, they normally use one finger, moving it in one direction. The same technique is used for itching, but the whole hand or arm is used. When self-grooming, orangutans flip through their hair with their lips and mouth. They only attend to areas they can see and reach. (Maple, 1980)

Play is either non-social or social and has been recognized in adults and juveniles. Juveniles exhibit a surprisingly high amount of playful interactions, such as non-aggressive biting. Actual contact is not always necessary, sometimes simple body language is used as play. Compared to all other great apes, orangutans are capable of the most facial expression, due to their very flexible lips. Sumatran orangutans are exceptionally intelligent and capable of learning complex tasks and language. (Maple, 1980)

  • Range territory size
    5 to 25 km^2

Home Range

Males and females share overlapping home ranges. Females range from 500 to 850 ha areas that overlap with each other. Male territories have a minimum range of 2,500 ha that will cover up to three female territories. (Fox, 2002; Maple, 1980; Singleton and van Schaik, 2002)

Communication and Perception

Male Sumatran orangutans are capable of long, exceptionally loud calls (called "long calls") that carry through forests for up to 1 km. The "long call" is made up of a series of sounds followed by a bellow. These calls help males claim territory, call to females, and keep out intruding male orangutans. Males have a large throat sac that lets them make these loud calls. They may also pull small trees and limbs down to add a crashing sound along with the call. Sumatran orangutans vocalize with grunts, grumbles, and squeaks when they meet each other, and young orangutans squeak, bark and scream. Both adults and young make a variety of sounds with their lips and throats, including sucking, burping, and grinding their teeth. (Maple, 1980)

Food Habits

Sumatran orangutan food choices vary seasonally. Most fruits are only available seasonally and within a limited range. Orangutans follow the fruiting season of local trees, feeding when they are ripe. Figs are one of the most important components of the Sumatran orangutan diet. During dry seasons, when fruit is less available, Sumatran orangutans will consume other vegetation. Fruit makes up about 60% of their diet, with the remainder being young leaves (~25%), flowers and bark (~10%), insects, mainly ants, termites, and crickets (~5%), and an occasional egg. (Sumatran Orangutan Society, 2007)

  • Animal Foods
  • eggs
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • flowers


The primary predators currently of Sumatran orangutans are humans (Homo sapiens). Hunting of orangutans has decimated their populations. Natural predators of Sumatran orangutans are clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) and Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae). These predator species are also under threat of extinction due to hunting by humans. (MacKinnon, 1974)

Ecosystem Roles

Sumatran orangutans play a critical role in the lowland rainforests of Sumatra and are considered a keystone species. As widely ranging fruit eaters, orangutans are important in dispersing seeds and maintaining diversity of rainforest woody plants. They also prune and aid in regenerating plant growth because they only choose to eat green leaves and stalks. ("Sumatran Orangutan- Population & Distribution", 2007; "Sumatran orangutan", 2007)

Species Used as Host
  • dipterocarp trees (Dipterocarpaceae)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Sumatran orangutans are important in seed dispersal. The protected status of orangutans make them an umbrella species. As umbrella species, if orangutans are protected, so is the rainforest they inhabit and all of its associated biodiversity.

There is still an active illegal trade in orangutans as pets. (Thompson, 2007)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known negative affects of orangutans on humans. They are susceptible to many of the same diseases as humans, and thus can carry and transmit them as well, including tuberculosis, meliodosis, influenza, cholera, and intestinal parasites.

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • carries human disease

Conservation Status

Critical orangutan habitat is rapidly being lost through illegal and legal logging in Sumatra. Their habitat has decreased over 80% in the last 20 years. Hunting orangutans for meat and killing adult females to obtain infants for the illegal pet trade has also caused an estimated decline in the orangutan population of 30 to 50% in the last 10 years. Uncontrolled forest fires have also harmed orangutan habitat. ("Sumatran Orangutan", 2006; Thompson, 2007; "Sumatran Orangutan- Population & Distribution", 2007; "Sumatran orangutan", 2007)

Other Comments

Sumatran and Bornean orangutans were previously considered subspecies of Pongo pygmaeus. They were recently split into two species, Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii).

In 2006, a subadult female that was captive-born was released into the wild from Perth Zoo in Jambi, Sumatra. This is the first attempt to release a captive-born orangutan into the wild. (Cocks and Bullo, 2008; Singleton, et al., 2007)

Fossil evidence suggests that Sumatran orangutans once occurred throughout Sumatra and the island of Java. (Wich, et al., 2004)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kelle Urban (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor, instructor), Radford University.



uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


an animal that mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

island endemic

animals that live only on an island or set of islands.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


lives alone


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


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Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Sumatran Orangutan. 69. Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust: Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. 2006. Accessed November 26, 2007 at http://www.durrell.org/Animals/Sumatran-Orangutan/.

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Cocks, L., K. Bullo. 2008. The processes for releasing a zoo-bred Sumatran orang-utan Pongo abelii at Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, Jambi, Sumatra. International Zoo Yearbook (OnlineEarly Articles), 42: XXX-XXX. Accessed January 09, 2008 at http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2007.00031.x.

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Fox, E. 2002. Female tactics to reduce sexual harassment. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 52/2: 93-101.

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MacKinnon, J. 1974. In Search Of The Red Ape. Ballantine Books; A Division of Random House, Inc. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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Rijksen, , Meijaard, Van Schaik. 2003. "DISTRIBUTION & HABITAT" (On-line). Accessed November 29, 2007 at http://spot.colorado.edu/~humphrey/fact%20sheets/orangutan/orangutan.htm.

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