February 3, 2017

Team develops international ‘Tinder for orangutans’

A Dutch zoo has tried to improve the chances of a successfully mating encounter for a female orangutan by allowing her to view and select a male partner on a touchscreen.

Dubbed "Tinder for orangutans," the four-year experiment at the Apenheul primate park has involved showing Samboja, an 11-year-old female, images of potential partners from an international great ape mating program. Zoo officials have said their goal is to get more insight into how female orangutans pick their mates.

Casting a Wide Net

Because the male orangutan might be shipped in from far away as Singapore, the zoo said it wants to raise the odds of a successful return on its time, effort and costs.

“Often, animals have to be taken back to the zoo they came from without mating,” Thomas Bionda, a behavioral biologist at the zoo, told Dutch media. “Things don’t always go well when a male and a female first meet.”

The tech-enhanced mating routine is just one element of a bigger research program investigating how emotions play a role in animal relationships.

“Emotion is of huge evolutionary importance,” Bionda said. “If you don’t interpret an emotion correctly in the wild, it can be the end of you.”

According to the local paper Tubantia, initial tests with bonobos had appeared to result in greater interest from the apes in photos containing “positive stimuli”, like bonobos mating or grooming each other.

With Samboja, the scientists had a hard time developing a touchscreen capable of gripping the ape’s attention. One device, strengthened with a metallic frame, was successfully tested about two weeks ago on two older orangutans, Evy van Berlo, an evolutionary psychologist told the Dutch paper. However, the tablet did not survive long once Samboja eventually got her hands on it.

As soon as the researchers have a sufficiently strong screen, Bionda said, they would look to see if the appearance itself is sufficient to develop a spark of attraction between two primates.

“This is completely digital, of course,” he said. “Usually, smell plays an important role too. But with the orangutans, it will be what you see is what you get.”


Image credit: Thinkstock