Orangutans and gorillas go bananas for tablet computers

And offer zoo researchers insight into their brains

There’s an ape for that

Shutterstock; Photograph by Jessica Darmanin; Photo Illustration by Levi Nicholson

The three orangutans at the Milwaukee County Zoo have a new toy. Once a week, zookeeper Trish Khan brings out an old iPad for them to play with. “I downloaded a bunch of apps I thought might interest them,” she says. One favourite is Doodle Buddy, a fingerpainting program; they also like apps that turn the iPad into an instrument that can be tapped like a drum or strummed like a guitar. “They love to watch videos,” she says. The adult female, MJ, “loves David Attenborough,” who makes natural history films. Khan carefully holds up the iPad instead of handing it over; the ape could easily break it in half.

Milwaukee’s project has been such a hit that zoos across North America, including Toronto, are clamouring to get some. “We’ve got about 20 zoos waiting,” says Richard Zimmerman, director of the non-profit Orangutan Outreach, which is running a campaign called Apps for Apes that aims to get more tablet computers to zoos. Eventually orangutans in different zoos will be able to visit each other via Skype or FaceTime—maybe even start Internet dating. “Orangutans have to move zoos for mating,” says York University’s Suzanne MacDonald, who studies animal behaviour and cognition. “It would be really cool if they could meet over the Internet first and see if they got along, or if they’re terrified of each other.”

Milwaukee got its first iPad almost by accident. “Our gorilla keeper was on Facebook and saw a picture of a gorilla on an iPad,” Khan says. “She commented, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get my gorillas an iPad?’ So a gentleman who’d just bought a brand new one gave his older one to the gorillas.” The zoo now has four split between gorillas and orangutans, but orangutans seem to prefer them. “Gorillas have a different way of interacting,” MacDonald says. “They look at things sideways, because it’s a threat to look at it directly. Orangutans like to look directly at things and figure them out.”

MacDonald has been using touchscreen computers with the Toronto Zoo’s orangutans for more than 15 years; she uses a computer inside a wooden box, so the apes don’t break the machine or turn it off.

Computers are ideal for studies because they’re objective. “If a human is there to judge, sometimes we want the animal to succeed,” which skews the data. Working with the Toronto Zoo’s six orangutans, she’s trying to learn how other primates view the world. “Orangutans can use computers, so we can ask them questions about how things look to a different brain. It’s hard to do that with an antelope.”

In different experiments, MacDonald and her team are looking into whether an orangutan can tell the difference between photos of a gorilla, a human, and another orangutan; how good their eyesight is; and even whether they enjoy listening to music. MacDonald is about to start a new experiment where she’ll expose them to different kinds of music—rock, hip hop, classical, even Tibetan throat singing—to see if they have a preference. Using the touchscreen computer, orangutans will be able to keep playing a song if they like it, or turn it off if they don’t.

When MacDonald first got the touchscreen, “we assumed they’d use their fingers,” she says, “but we showed the young adolescent male a picture of an adult male orangutan, and he turned his back on it. He went away, found a stick, came back, and touched the screen with a stick, not with his finger. All the other orangutans saw this, and they wanted to do it like that too.”

The iPad has all sorts of potential for research. “We want to continue with these experiments, and start on some novel ones, like hooking up orangutans at different zoos,” MacDonald says. “We don’t know for sure if they’ll recognize each other over Skype.” Mahal, the youngest orangutan in Milwaukee, loves to watch video of other young orangutans.

Once more zoos have orangutan-proofed iPads, the idea is to let them choose videos, pictures to look at, and apps. “It’s educational for the public, too,” Khan says, “to see some of their intelligence come out. Hopefully it will create more interest in trying to save the species.”


Orangutans and gorillas go bananas for tablet computers

  1. This seems like a contradiction: “Gorillas have a different way of interacting,” MacDonald says. “They
    look at things sideways, because it’s a threat to look at it directly.
    Orangutans like to look directly at things and figure them out.”

    • What’s the contradiction?He’s talking about 2 different apes and how they view the world. Seems pretty straight forward to me: Gorillas look at things indirectly which doesn’t really facilitate interaction with an ipad. Orangs look full on , which is good for ipad use.

  2. IM awESOME

    • wow

    • suuurreee

    • no ur not

    • you suck

  3. LAND HOP!!!!!! do the laaannnd hop!!!

  4. this is tottaly FAKE it says they zoo keeper doesnt let the apes use the ipad cause he can break it in half but in the picture his holding it….

    • That part confused me at first, ’til someone pointed out the picture is a photoshop – look at the hand holding the tablet – which they clearly did just to illustrate the story. 

  5. haha i comment and then the rest of the people in my class copy me :p

    • be quiet

  6. or i can just make my name autumn…

  7. you suck josh-

    • i wish there was a dislike button :(

  8. it didnt work.

  9. its funny

  10. It’s raing men halilua

    • your awesome!!

  11. its raining men

  12. Now… hopefully it says autumn up top

  13. lol. poeple who come to see this will be like wtf?

  14. ok who is luggy?

  15. josh ur stupid there is a dislike button herp a derp

  16. he not actually holding the ipod it is photo shopped

  17. dont worry im not a creaper


  18. hi :)

    • you are werid

  19. just for poeple who come here actually READING this, were students being stupid.

    • no we are creapers lol

    • lol

    • In an article about lower primate intelligence… oddly appropriate. :)

  20. why are we all commenting

    • cause its better than class maybe

      • no

        • yes.. who r u

  21. haha

  22. how many questions have u done yet lollypop

  23. who is lolly pop

    • WHO R U

  24. Cool article… interesting consept

    • who is this

    • nice name…

      • lol

  25. Pop says hi

  26. pops like im pop

  27. hello

  28. oh popper

  29. whos loollypop?!?!

    • what kind of name is pinky winky hahahahahahaahaha

  30. wow people

  31. mee

  32. jkkyt

  33. bye

  34. hello

  35. jk

  36. i am awsome

  37. im pinkywinky

  38. people that arnt in this class will be like ummm wtf is going on with COMMENT

  39. hello fellow friends

  40. habababsjdfh

  41. goodbye!!!!!!!!!!!!

  42. byebyebbyebeybeybeyb

  43. They always told us the intellectual difference between humans and animals is quantity, not quality. With the emergence of amazing animal intelligence, I am not so sure now. Perhaps in a few thousand years, the orangutangs and bonobo chimps will evolve into our level of intelligence….

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