Neophobia and learning mechanisms: how captive orangutans discover medicinal plants

Erik Gustafsson, Sabrina Krief, Michel Saint Jalme

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Great apes sometimes feed on items of low nutritional value with bioactive secondary compounds. These molecules may be toxic and neophobia is presumed to be an essential factor in avoiding the ingestion of noxious items. The aim of this study is to investigate, in captive orangutans, individual and social learning involved in the discovery and ingestion of new items. We presented novel aromatic plants – 11 fresh plants and 4 infused plants – to 4 captive weaned Bornean orangutans, both under isolated and group conditions, and recorded their behaviour and interactions between group members. All animals tasted by nibbling or ingested most of the plants presented. Regardless of the experimental condition, individual responses did not vary visibly across the sessions, despite numerous close observations, and food transfers between individuals were observed. Our results suggest that a low level of neophobia and a strong propensity to look to conspecifics for information allow Bornean orangutans to expand their diet after weaning. Our results also provide some evidence that olfaction is a key sense in determining food edibility based on previous experience.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-55
JournalFolia Primatologica
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011
Externally publishedYes


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