Over the past couple of months I’ve been reading John MacKinnon’s In Search of the Red Ape (Collins, 1974) – one of the first books anyone reads whenever they want to learn about orangutans. The book is stuffed full of anecdotes and other natural history tales about Borneo and Sumatra, and it seems that MacKinnon (who, these days, is best known for his association with the discovery of the Saola Pseudoryx nghetinensis in Vietnam (MacKinnon 2000, Van Dung et al. 1993, 1994)) encountered just about every creature you could hope to encounter in the tropical jungles of the region… yes, even the enigmatic orang-pendek (or its tracks, at least).
Anyway, one particular section of the book really stands out for me: the bit where MacKinnon catches sight of a gigantic, terrestrially walking male orangutan…
I was nearly home when I saw a terrifying spectacle. For a moment I thought it was a trick of my vision. A huge, black orang-utan was walking along the path towards me. I had never seen such a large animal even in a zoo. He must have weighed every bit of three hundred pounds. Hoping that he had not noticed me, I dived behind a large tree. I was in no state to defend myself, or run from him should he come for me, and I could recall clearly the natives’ terrible stories about old, ground-living orangs. I held my breath as the monster passed within a few feet of me and let him get about forty yards ahead before I followed in pursuit. He was enormous, as black as a gorilla but with his back almost bare of hair; Ivan the Terrible was the only name I could think of. (MacKinnon 1974, p. 54)
‘Ivan’ was an efficient, speedy walker and preferred not to climb. MacKinnon doesn’t state whether ‘Ivan’ was walking quadrupedally or bipedally, but remember that orangutans are highly capable bipeds, and indeed work on their energetics shows that they are more efficient (in terms of wattage/kilo) at it than we are (for more on this see Bipedal orangs, gait of a dinosaur, and new-look Ichthyostega: exciting times in functional anatomy part I). It seems that giant male orangs that become too heavy for an easy life in the trees descend to the ground, and often walk upright and bipedally (though they presumably use their hands for regular support).
What makes MacKinnon’s report particularly interesting is that it isn’t the only report of an unusually large, ground-walking orang on record (Kaplan & Rogers 2000). Among other contemporary primatologists, Biruté Galdikas is also on record as having seen an exceptionally large orangutan walking on the ground. In fact, there’s a whole chapter devoted to such animals in Chad Arment’s 2004 book Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation, and I’ve unashamedly plundered from it here. Arment (2004) discusses the fact that 19th century scientists had a rather confused view of orangutan systematics: they knew that people on Borneo and elsewhere used different names for different ‘kinds’ of orangs, and they wondered whether these different ‘kinds’ corresponded to species [flanged male Bornean orang shown here, photographed at Louisville Zoo. From wikipedia].
Huxley, for example, referred in 1877 to the Mias Pappan or Zimo, Mias Kassu and Mias Rambi, noting ‘Whether there are distinct species, however, or whether they are mere races, and how far any of them are identical with the Sumatran Orang … are problems which are at present undecided; and the variability of these great apes is so extensive, that the settlement of the question is a matter of great difficulty’. Damn, Hux was smart. The binomial Pongo wurmbii Tiedermann, 1808 was sometimes used for the Mias Pappan, and this name still survives as one of the subspecies of the Borean orangutan Pongo pygmaeus. However, it’s not clear that all ‘Mias Pappan’ individuals belonged to P. p. wurmbii. Incidentally, it’s been suggested both that P. p. wurmbii might be as distinct from other Bornean orangs as P. abelii (Sumatran orang) is, and that it might be even more closely related to P. abelii than it is to the rest of P. pygmaeus (Groves et al. 1992). If true, orangutan taxonomy would perhaps need revision, as wurmbii (named 1808) predates abelii (named 1827). Genetic work does not support this proposal, however, with Borean orang populations exhibiting relatively little genetic variation (Lu et al. 1996) [image below, taken by Andi Ramadhan, shows a Sumatran orang (and a man) at Bukit Lawang orang sanctuary. Note the stiff-legged bipedal pose].
In an 1846 account of his visit to Borneo, Captian Henry Keppel referred to the relatively enormous Mias Pappan, noting that it was not only very large compared to other orangs, but also difficult to procure. What makes Keppel’s account particularly interesting is that he obtained a hand from one of these allegedly gigantic creatures. ‘This hand far exceeds in length, breadth, and power, the hand of any man in the ship; and though smoked and shrunk, the circumference of the fingers is half as big again as an ordinary human finger’ (Keppel 1846, Arment 2004). Without measurements available, I find it difficult to determine how exceptional this specimen really was, as I imagine that the hand of a large, mature adult orang is larger and longer than that of a large man anyway.
Keppel also referred in passing to a giant orang killed on Sumatra. Arment (2004) tracked this account down: it was first published in Clarke Abel’s Asiatic Researches and was also written about by Broderip (1849). A party of men landed on Ramboon on the north-west Sumatran coast, and here encountered a large male orangutan. The animal was pursued both on the ground, and while it climbed about in the branches, and it took a long time and a pretty horrendous amount of shooting, spearing and stoning for the creature to be killed. Like others who have killed non-human apes…
‘Those who aided in this slaughter acknowledged that they were distressed by the human-like expression of his countenance, the piteous manner in which he applied his hands to his wounds, and the whole bearing of the dying combatant. They confessed that the sight was such as almost to make them question the nature of the act they were committing’ (Abel, in Arment 2004, p. 206).
Anyway, the big deal about this poor animal is that, when measured, it was found to be absolutely enormous: ‘seven feet in what might be called his ordinary standing posture, and eight feet when suspended for the purpose of being skinned’. Abel measured the skin and concluded that the animal’s standing height was 6 ft 6½ in (1.9 m). The hand – measured from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger – was 30 cm long, and the foot 35 cm long. Standing heights for orangs are typically given as 1.36 m for males (Groves 1971), so an animal of this size would be truly exceptional. The world record standing height for a gorilla is given as 1.95 m for an Eastern lowland gorilla Gorilla beringei graueri collected in 1938, though there’s an unconfirmed record of another individual, shot in 1932, that was 2.06 m tall (Carwardine 1995). To get at least a rough idea of what a very tall orang might look like, I knocked up the adjacent image. The human in the image is 1.7 m tall.
The good news is that this giant Sumatran orang was deposited in the museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the zoological collection of which was later absorbed into that of the Indian Society at Kolkata. Arment (2004) speculated that the specimen might have been sent from here to Britain. The giant hand that Keppel wrote about is also supposed to have gone into a museum, as was a very large skull that Keppel also wrote about. However, we don’t know where these specimens are now, and Arment urged ‘British and French investigators with contacts at the British Museum [now The Natural History Museum], the Royal Asiatic Society, the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and any other pertinent collections, to determine if these specimens were ever accessioned’ (Arment 2004, p. 208). I haven’t done this, despite the fact that I know primatologists who have worked on accessioned ape material in the collections of the NHM and elsewhere. Colin Groves might be a good person to ask, but I don’t know him.
Carwardine (1995) referred to a Bornean orang said to be 1.8 m in standing height, which again would be exceptional and well within ‘record’ range. I haven’t found any further references to this individual (Carwardine doesn’t provide any details), but I haven’t really looked that hard. Wikipedia’s orangutan page says that males can reach 1.75 m [wikipedia's diagram of a large male orang compared to a 1.8 m tall human shown here].
While the animals mentioned here are best interpreted as exceptional, world-record examples of their species, you may know that, once upon a time, orangutans approaching or even exceeding 2 m in height were apparently not so extraordinary. Fossils of extinct orangutans from Sumatra and from the Asian mainland represent animals this size, and it seems (from the remains we have) that sizes of this sort were typical and certainly not unusual. Were these large extinct forms (the taxonomic status of which is currently ambiguous) predominantly terrestrial? MacKinnon (1974) thought so, and suggested that they ‘probably ranged on the ground, like modern gorillas, in large bands, protected by enormous males’ (p. 212).
Based on what we know of fossils and of the prehistoric distribution of orangutans (they were previously present in subtropical woodland and montane forests, and were not necessarily tropical apes), MacKinnon further speculated that the relatively small size and arboreal habits of modern orangs are recent specialisations. Whether this is true or not (so far as I know, no-one has looked at the hypothesis in detail), note that it has nothing to do with the restriction of orangs to Borneo and/or Sumatra: it now seems that Bornean and Sumatran orangs diverged about 1.1 million years ago (though there are also estimates positing their divergence at 3.4 million years ago: see Warren et al. 2001), meaning that the two species were distinct even before Sumatra and Borneo became isolated from the Malaysian mainland (this happened in the Middle Pleistocene, about 300,000 years ago) [adjacent map, from Warren et al. (2001), shows inferred migratory routes of orangs into Borneo and Sumatra prior to their separation from each other, and from the mainland].
Can we really verify the presence of modern orangutans nearly 2 m tall? And could such animals still be around today?
For previous Tet Zoo articles on apes and other primates see…
- Chimpanzees make and use spears
- Probably not a sasquatch
- Bipedal orangs, gait of a dinosaur, and new-look Ichthyostega: exciting times in functional anatomy part I
- When I grow up, I want to be a functional anatomist: functional anatomy part III
- Chinese black rhinos and deinotheres, giant sengis, and yet more new lemurs
- One-eyed indri
- The Cultured Ape, and Attenborough on gorillas
- Zihlman’s ‘pygmy chimpanzee hypothesis’
Refs – -
Arment, C. 2004. Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation. Coachwhip Publications, Landisville, Pennsylvania.
Broderip, W. J. 1849. Zoological Recreations. Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.
Carwardine, M. 1995. The Guinness Book of Animal Records. Guinness Publishing, Enfield, Middlesex.
Groves, C. P. 1971. Pongo pygmaeus. Mammalian Species 4, 1-6.
- ., Westwood, C. & Shea, B. T. 1992. Unfinished business: mahalanobis and a clockwork orang. Journal of Human Evolution 22, 327-340.
Kaplan, G. & Rogers, L. J. 2000. The Orangutans. Perseus Publications, Cambridge (Mass.).
Keppel, H. 1846. The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy. Harper & Bros, New York.
Lu, Z., Karesh, W. B., Janczewski, D. N., Frazier-Taylor, H., Sajuthi, D., Gombek, F., Andau, M., Martenson, J. S. & O’Brien, S. J. 1996. Genomic differentiation among natural populations of orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus). Current Biology 6, 1326-1336.
MacKinnon, J. 1974. In Search of the Red Ape. Collins, London.
- . 2000. New mammals in the 21st century? Annals of Missouri Botanical Garden 87, 63-66.
Warren, K. S., Verschoor, E. J., Langenhuijzen, S., Heriyanto, Swan, R. A., Vigilant, L. & Heeney, J. L. 2001. Speciation and intrasubspecific variation of Bornean orangutans, Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus. Molecular Biology and Evolution 18, 472-480.
Van Dung, V., Giao, P. M., Chinh, N. N., Tuoc, D., Arctander, P. & MacKinnon, J. 1993. A new species of living bovid from Vietnam. Nature 363, 443-445.
- ., Giao, P. M., Chinh, N. N., Tuoc, D. & MacKinnon, J. 1994. Discovery and conservation of the Vu Quang ox in Vietnam. Oryx 28, 16-21.