How orangutan engineers build safe and comfy treetop beds

We normally think of nests as the creations of birds, but our ape cousins build nests too. Orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos all build tree beds, by weaving branches, twigs and leaves together into a bowl-shaped cradle. These nests may provide safety from predators, or help the apes to sleep warm.* But it seems that their main function is to provide a good night’s rest. Sleeping against a tree bough is hard on a large ape, and nests offer a more comfortable option.

Of all the apes, orangutans reputedly create the sturdiest and most elaborate nests. By studying the physical properties of these treetop bunks, Adam van Casteren from the University of Manchester has found that the apes are skilled engineers. As befits animals of their intelligence, they don’t just mash branches together. Instead, they seem to have an impressive amount of technical knowledge about their construction materials.

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Orangutans build their nests between 11 and 20 metres up. Once they choose a good spot on a sturdy branch, they bend or break other branches in towards them, and weave them in place to create a basic foundation. On top of that, they add smaller branches to create a ‘mattress’. That’s the basic model, and some orangutans add deluxe features. They can create blankets, by covering themselves with large leafy branches, or pillows, by clumping such branches together. They can loosely braid branches above their heads to make a roof, or even create a secondary ‘bunk-nest’ over the main one.

Like all apes, orangutans construct new ones every day. This means that intrepid scientists have plenty of old discarded nests to study. Van Casteren, along with Julia Myatt from the Royal Veterinary College, found 14 such nests in the Sumatran rainforest. They hoisted themselves into the canopy, attached ropes to different parts of the nests, and lowered these to the ground where team members were waiting with force gauges. “Climbing up into the high canopy is breathtaking,” says van Casteren. “You enter an area of the forest that isn’t used to having humans hang around in it.”

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Van Casteren found that orangutans use thicker branches in the structural foundation of the nest, and thinner branches in the mattress. The structural ones are four times stronger and four times more rigid, and they make the nest sturdy. The mattress branches are thinner and more flexible for comfort.

The orangutans also break the two types of branches in different ways. If you bend a dense branch, it will only break halfway – this is known as a “greenstick fracture (see below). That’s what van Casteren found in the structural part of the nest. Once broken like this, it’s surprisingly hard to fully snap a branch in two, even for a powerful animal like an orangutan. The trick is to twist the branch. The fracture extends outwards until the two halves come apart, producing two pieces with long tapered ‘tails’.  Van Casteren filmed the apes using this technique, and the found plenty of the distinctive tailed branches in their mattresses.

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There are plenty of questions about the nests left to answer. For example, orangutans don’t choose their trees randomly, and actually avoid the most common species. What’s special about the ones they pick, and does that factor into the properties of the nests? The apes also learn their craft from adults, so do immature orangutans build nests with less distinctive foundations and mattresses? Van Casteren also wants to look at the nests of other great apes, and of other architects such as beaver or birds, to see if he gets similar results.

But for now, his data already show that orangutans make sophisticated technical choices when they build their nests. He thinks that they account for the different properties of the materials in their environment, and use those properties to make bunks that are both safe and comfortable. While many studies of animal intelligence focus on the use of tools, he argues that nest-building is no less mentally demanding.

Roland Ennos, who was involved in the study, says, “I hope helps to show how the evolution of intelligence can be driven by the need to deal with the mechanical environment, rather than the prevailing orthodoxy that it’s only the social environment that’s important.”

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* In writing this story, I stumbled across a wonderful study by Fiona Stewart from the University of Cambridge, who tested the value of chimpanzee nests, by sleeping in them. She spent several nights in Senegal either sleeping in newly made chimp beds or on the bare ground. She was warmer in the nests, and received fewer insect bites. She didn’t get any more sleep, but what she got was less disturbed. “Terrestrial animals, including hyenas, were more concerning during ground sleep, although snakes were always a concern,” she writes, in a wonderfully deadpan way. Van Casteren, however, never tried to sleep in the orangutan nests that he studied. They are higher than a chimp’s and he was “too worried about falling out mid-dream”.

Reference: Van Casteren, Sellers, Thorpe, Coward, Crompton, Myatt & Ennos. 2012. Nest-building orangutans demonstrate engineering know-how to produce safe, comfortable beds. PNAS

Images courtesy of Adam van Casteren

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