Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part III, Biruté Galdikas

Hi everyone! It’s been a busy weekend here. Super sorry I’m posting this week’s Scientist Sunday so late; I am indeed aware that it is no longer Sunday! (Don’t worry – I won’t make this a trend.)

Leakey’s Angels; from right to left, Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Biruté Galdikas

Without any further ado, this week we are wrapping up our Leakey’s Angels trilogy with Biruté Galdikas. If this is the first Leakey’s Angels post you’re reading, you might want to get caught up on Parts I and II.

Biruté (far right) grew up in Toronto, and was the oldest of four children (image from Carlotta Hacker)

Biruté Galdikas was born in 1946. She was born in Germany, to Lithuanian parents who were on their way to Canada from their homeland. Biruté grew up in Toronto, where, at only five years of age, she started to wonder where humans came from, and learned that they shared an ancestor with the other great apes. When she was six, she read a Curious George book, and marveled at the tales of exploration contained within its the pages. She spent much of her childhood exploring the woods by herself, pretending to be a Huron or Iroquois Native, and surveying the wild animals. Throughout high school, she remained fascinated with apes. She researched them on her own, and decided that her favorites were the elusive “red apes” of Asia — orangutans. At age 19, Biruté became enamored of Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in Tanzania. She began to dream about immersing herself in the world of orangutans in the same way that Goodall had done with chimps.

Reading Curious George as a child inspired Biruté to become an explorer of the natural world

Galdikas went on to receive bachelor’s degrees in psychology and zoology, and an anthropology master’s and doctorate from UCLA, never forgetting her fantasy of living with and studying orangutans. When Louis Leakey came to give a lecture at UCLA during her graduate studies, Galdikas approached him and expressed her desire to learn about orangutans in Asia. After initial hesitance, Leakey eventually agreed to mentor and sponsor her studies. Nearly three years later, at age 25, Biruté was on her way to Borneo, Indonesia.

Notable accomplishments:

Galdikas with Borneo orangutans (image from Carlotta Hacker)

In 1971, Galdikas arrived in one of the few truly wild places left on Earth — Tanjung Puting reserve in Southwest Borneo. Louis Leakey and the National Geographic Society helped her set up her research base. She would be living in a thatched hut in the middle of dense rainforest, with no electricity or even road access to the human world. Galdikas could not have been happier, and christened the place “Camp Leakey”.

Her initial excitement soon gave way to disenchantment, as she spent months struggling to even spot an orangutan. Eventually, however, Galdikas learned how to observe the evasive creatures, and began to monitor their behavior. The instant she caught sight of an orangutan, she relentlessly followed the ape around until it made a nest to sleep in for the night. The next day, Biruté would start at the nest and resume her observations. Her investigations led her through thick rainforest and waist-high swamps, and Galdikas often developed a neck crick from looking up into the trees at all times. Yet, despite the literally backbreaking conditions, she would maintain a steady gaze on her subjects. Like Goodall and Fossey before her, Galdikas named each orangutan she studied and kept a running inventory of individuals. As she learned more about the alluring apes, her initial frustrations began to melt away.

Orangutans (pongo) are the humans’ (homo) most distant relatives within the great apes, a group that also includes chimpanzees (pan) and gorillas

At the time of Biruté’s studies, orangutans were the least understood of the great apes. Now, because of Galdikas’s landmark work, we hold a much greater comprehension of orangutan behavior, habitat, and diet. For instance, before Galdikas began studying them, people believed orangutans to be exclusively solitary creatures. Galdikas observed that they actually demonstrate dynamic social behavior when they are young, developing loner tendencies only as they get older.

Juvenile orangutans like to cling to their mothers for the first 7-10 years of their life

She studied their migration patterns, and discovered that some populations remain in a home area, while others are more nomadic. Soon, she’d stayed long enough to learn that orangutans have one of the longest birth intervals for wild animals, with females giving birth to a single infant every 8 years. To compensate, females remain reproductively viable for a long time. In fact, Bornean orangs have the most prolonged development of any mammal. Consistent with the fact that they have one offspring at a time, orangutan mothers invest a great amount of energy into rearing their young, just as humans do. The shared behavior between orangutans and humans suggests that these strong maternal instincts may have been present in our common ancestor.

For close to the first ten years of their lives, baby orangutans maintain incredibly intense relationships with their mothers. During these years, the mother and juvenile are in constant contact; the babies become permanent fixtures on their mother’s bodies, clutching their caretakers at all times. This period of nonstop apprenticeship prepares the orangutan to lead a more solitary adult life. Adult males are the only truly solitary orangutans, spending most of their time traversing across the forest and foraging for food on their own. Their roaming range is typically at least 40 square kilometers.

Orangutans never evolved the need to form social groups, perhaps because they subsist on large quantities of fruit, which they obtain by roaming across the forest. Because food and space resources have never been limiting for these apes, they have had no reason to form large support networks. As long as the forests have continued to provide for them, they have continued to lead solitary lives.

Galdikas with one of the first orangutan infants she adopted (photo taken by her first husband, Rod Brindamour)

Now, however, encroaching human development threatens the orangutans’ long-standing mode of living. As the story went with Goodall and Fossey, the longer Galdikas studied orangutans, the harder she fell in love with them. Like Fossey witnessed with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Galdikas observed poachers hunting orangutans for bush meat, tourist souvenirs, medicinal products, and the pet trade. Deforestation facilitates this process by making the orangutans more visible to poachers, and eliminating the apes’ refuge in the forest canopy. Galdikas soon began to advocate publicly for the protection of orangutans and the Borneo rainforest in which they live.

In 1990, Galdikas called for the return of six orangutan infants that had been smuggled out of Borneo. These six apes became known as the “Bangkok Six”, and Galdikas helped rehabilitate them into their native environment. Today, she continues to advocate for the preservation of the orangutans and their dwindling habitat, which remains at the jeopardy of loggers, gold miners, palm oil plantations, and man-induced forest fires. She delivers lectures to Indonesian natives, and presents her research around the world.

The orangutans eventually came to view Galdikas as a companion, hanging out with her as she did work in her hut (image from Carlotta Hacker)

In 1986, Galdikas founded Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), an organization dedicated to achieving conservation, rehabilitation, research, and public education. Through OFI, she runs a reforestation project and rehabilitation program for orangutan orphans that were once illegal pets. Galdikas studies the infants that are born to rehabilitated orangutans at Camp Leakey as part of her research, which remains the longest continual study of a single species. The program has received criticism for its methods and effectiveness, and scientists point out that the behaviors of rehabilitated orangutans cannot be applied to orangutans in the wild.

Along with her advocacy work, Galdikas does continue to conduct field research and observe orangutans in their natural habitat. In 1995, she published Reflections of Eden, a memoir in which she recounts her experiences at Camp Leakey, and describes her efforts to rehabilitate orangutans for release back into the wild.

Why I Admire Galdikas:

Galdikas received funding and assistance from the National Geographic Society, and was twice featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine

Biruté Galdikas has spent her life in relentless pursuit of an aspiration she has held from childhood. She became her own agent for fulfilling her dreams, poring over any book she could get her hands on as a child, and working through college and grad school to achieve her goal of studying orangutans in their native environment. Her enthusiasm equipped her to endure unfriendly field conditions, relentless rain, poachers, leeches, and the constant plague of carnivorous insects.

Galdikas’s research has illuminated our knowledge and appreciation of orangutans, humans’ most distant relative within the great apes. She has championed the preservation of the Borneo rainforest, more and more of which is vanishing due to human activities. Beyond a purely scientific relationship, she developed intimate connections with the Bornean orangutans she studied. She became a matriarch to ex-captive orphans, many of whom travelled by her side, shared her meals, and slept beside her. She adopted infant orangutans who would treat her as a mother and cling to her at all times. Indeed, Biruté Galdikas has bridged the gap between our species and theirs. Through her work, she has forged not only new knowledge, but also new relationships that are as robust as the kinship that binds us to other humans.

Galdikas formed close relationships with the Borneo orangutans she studied


2 thoughts on “Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part III, Biruté Galdikas

  1. Pingback: Leakey`s Angel/The Trimate (3): Birute Galdikas | Imbalance in Balance

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