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Tinder For Apes: Dutch Zoo Lets Orangutan Choose Mate On A Tablet

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A Dutch zoo is trying to see if female orangutans will select a mate by just looking at photographs on a touchscreen.

The four year experiment, dubbed as “Tinder for orangutans,” of Apenheul primate park in Apeldoorn is made in hopes to increase the breeding chances of the primate. It will show 11-year-old Samboja pictures of prospective partners from an international great ape breeding initiative, with the male candidates coming from as far as Singapore.

Emotions And Animal Relationships

The zoo’s behavioral biologist Thomas Bionda said the program will give them greater insight into the female orangutan’s process of choosing a mate.

“Often, animals have to be taken back to the zoo they came from without mating,” said Bionda, emphasizing that things may not go well between male and female animals on their first encounter.

Apes appeared alert to emotions in the research, whether the emotions being portrayed are positive or negative, or neutral or aggressive.

Efforts to find Samboja a partner stretched as far back as last year, when the zoo broached on Facebook the idea that the orangutan was fast approaching reproductive age. Now there will be a touchscreen tablet involved, and researchers will closely watch Samboja’s response to images.

A broader program will delve on how emotions affect animal relationships. Emotion being of “huge evolutionary importance,” not interpreting an emotion in the wild right can spell trouble, the biologist added.

Orangutan-Proof Screen

It’s crucial, however, that the devices are strong enough to be handled by the animals.

Samboja, for instance, immediately destroyed a tablet in its grip, prompting the zoo to seek something that can withstand the tough handling and allow for the research to continue. Two weeks ago, the said tablet — reinforced using a steel frame — was successfully tested on two older orangutans but did not have as much luck with Samboja.

Earlier tablet tests done on bonobos resulted in increased interest in photos that contained “positive stimuli,” or images of other bonobos mating or grooming each other.

Breeding Mission

A similar technique was done in Germany last year, where female orangutans Conny and Sinta stared at a MacBook via a window and a zookeeper flashed videos of potential mates. Conny had her eyes widened and her face tilted, while Sinta appeared less engaged as a sheet was tossed over her head.

Sinta took a liking to a male from a Belgian zoo that was also attracted to her in return. The meeting, however, did not appear to produce an offspring.

It remains unknown how many orangutans exactly are in the wild, but estimates span from 45,000 to 60,000. Orangutans have had fair success in captive breeding, according to Orangutan Foundation International founder and president Birute Mary Galdikas, but the challenge is in selecting the right ones to breed so natural subspecies or populations of Bornean and Sumatran species are maintained.

Galdikas thought of Tinder for orangutans a good approach but preferred videos to photos.

Bionda clarified that the experiment will be completely digital. Smell is also important but this time it’s “what you see is what you get,” he said.

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