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What Does It Mean When An Orangutan Smiles?

A smile is generally seen as a sign of happiness, acceptance, or contentment–though admittedly, among humans it can mean a great variety of things. But what about when that smile is displayed by an animal? Specifically, what does it mean when an orangutan smiles? Keep reading to find out more!

Why Do Orangutans Smile?

Why Do Orangutans Smile?

Orangutans may appear to “smile” in different ways and for different reasons. There are times when an orangutan’s expression is easy for a human to read; other times, not so much.

Because orangutans are so much like us (sharing over 96 percent of our DNA), it’s easy for us to relate their expressions and behaviors to human experiences. What’s more, a lifetime of seeing great apes act in movies and perform in circuses has led us to believe that a smile from them means the same thing as a smile from a person.

Sometimes it does, but many times, it doesn’t.

When apes, including orangutans, spread their lips in a toothy “smile,” this facial expression is most likely what is called a fear grimace.” It is the expression the ape makes when it is afraid or feels threatened by something.

Most of the time, orangutans don’t smile in the wild–at least, not a wide smile with their teeth showing. If they make this expression, it may be because a predator is threatening their territory or their young.

That said, sometimes, orangutans smile in a different way–curling their lips upward while keeping their mouth closed, as shown in the following video. 

This type of smile is not the typical fear grimace expression, and the orangutan is not displaying any behavior to suggest she feels threatened.

While it’s unclear exactly what this type of smile means, there is reason to believe it has a more familiar and positive connotation.

Furthermore, Orangutan Outreach states,

“Baby orangutans cry when they’re hungry, whimper when they’re hurt and smile at their mothers.”

Certainly, a baby orangutan would have no cause to feel threatened by its own mother, so this passage undoubtedly refers to some other form of smile than the fear grimace.

Do Orangutans Express Emotions?

Orangutan Outreach goes on to say,

They express emotions just like we do: joy, fear, anger, surprise… it’s all there. If you take a few minutes and watch an orangutan, you’ll swear they’re just like us.”

So yes, orangutans do express a variety of emotions, and many of these expressions are strikingly similar to our own. But, as mentioned in the above section, it’s easy to make assumptions about orangutans when the truth may not always be exactly what it seems.

Orangutans are much like us in many ways, including their ability to feel and express a wide variety of emotions. But the exact expression of those emotions isn’t always what we’re used to among our own species. 

Orangutans may appear to “dial down” their expressions–in other words, they are more stoic than we are. They may feel intense joy or extreme sadness, but you won’t necessarily see them smiling and jumping up and down or burying a tear-stained face in their hands.

It’s also possible that we simply misinterpret their expressions. Check out this video of an orangutan asking a man for bananas and giving him rocks and banana peels in return:

If you read the comments below the video, you’ll notice that a lot of people were laughing because, when the man shook his head to indicate “no more bananas,” the orangutan apparently got grumpy and threw a rock at him. 

But, as other commenters were pointing out, the orangutan threw the rock (as well as the banana peels) not out of anger or frustration but because he was making a trade for the bananas he had received.

The moral of this story? Ascribing human emotions to animals may be fun, but it won’t necessarily help us understand their own emotions and behaviors any better than we do now.  

How Smart are Orangutans?

How Smart are Orangutans

If you watched the two videos above, perhaps you noticed looks and behaviors that indicated intelligence in the orangutans. Could you have been mistaken, or are they actually as smart as they look?

There are many reasons to believe orangutans are extremely smart. In fact, they are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals in the world.

Orangutans have repeatedly shown an ability to learn new skills by watching someone perform them. This is how baby orangutans learn from their mother–by watching and retaining the information as she shows them which plants are good to eat, which branches are safe to climb on, and how to use a variety of tools.

Speaking of tool use, orangutans frequently use objects in their environment to make their lives easier. For example, they will use sticks to retrieve honey from the inside of beehives; they will chew up leaves to make a sort of “sponge” that absorbs water collected in tree holes, which they then drink; and they have even been known to use large tree branches to test water depths before entering a stream or river.

Though orangutans are fairly solitary, they sometimes eat together in groups during times when there is plenty of food to go around. They communicate with each other both verbally and using sign language, and they have even been observed communicating about things that have happened in the past.

One orangutan that was raised in captivity after being rejected by its mother repeatedly displayed incredible insightfulness by signing “tomato-toothpaste” when he didn’t know the word for “ketchup” and signing “dirty” (meaning he needed to go to the bathroom) when he didn’t want to do something.

So, how smart are orangutans? Probably much smarter than we will ever give them credit for. 

Conclusion

Orangutans may “smile” when they are actually afraid or feeling threatened; other times, though, they will smile contentedly by curling their lips without baring their teeth. They are incredibly smart creatures that feel a wide variety of emotions, and though they are similar to humans in many ways, they may not always express emotions or behaviors the same way humans do.

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