Biology, Primatology

Motherhood Among the Trees: Nurturing Primates and Parenting

nurturing primates

Orangutan babies look straight into your soul and are just like human babies, helpless,

said Willie Smith, a Dutch scientist. In many ways these higher primates are much alike. These higher primates are actually the Nurturing Primates. For example, their gestation periods are between eight and nine months, so female orangutans understand big bellies and swollen feet just as much as anyone in lamaze class. But they approach motherhood in ways that are also dissimilar to humans.  Orangutans have to teach their children how to hide from pythons, something I’ve never taught my kindergartner how to do. Orangutans can also breastfeed for up to eight years. Can you imagine?


According to the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), orangutans have one of the longest and most slowly-maturing life cycles of any animal. Females don’t become sexually active until they’re 12 or so, which is a long time for higher, nurturing primates, and most don’t become mothers until 15 or 16. For comparison’s sake, marmosets only live an average of 15 years.

As previously stated, orangutans are generally pregnant the same amount of time as humans. They also give birth to a single baby in the way that most humans do. There are only a few recorded instances of Sumatran orangutans giving birth to twins.

Infancy and Child Rearing with Nurturing Primates

Baby orangutans are utterly dependent on their mothers for the first 2-3 years of their lives. While they can grip, sit and even roll around on their own, they spend the majority of their early years riding on their mother’s back or clinging to her stomach as she moves.

Most of the orangutan childhood is spent learning how to survive. Moms teach their kids how to find food, create shelter, groom themselves and move gracefully from tree to tree. This learning usually takes place until they’re 10 or so and the child is mature enough not to need constant supervision. It’s worth noting, however, that mothers act as parents and protectors even after that. They sleep with their offspring in the same trees and defend them against predators no matter how old they are.

Bonding Among Nurturing Primates

Why do orangutans grow up so slowly? Experts suggest that it’s a combination of socialization and pragmatism. On one hand, there’s a lot to learn about being an orangutan. Mothers act as teachers first and foremost, and a bond develops after years of guidance.

There might also be a more emotional aspect to it. Orangutans aren’t hugely social creatures once they’re fully grown, so they may be “stretching out” their adolescence to enjoy that bond with mom while they still can. Young females have been known to come back and visit their mothers even when they’re fully mature and self-sufficient.

Occasionally, however, tragedy can strike between parents and offspring. Do you remember those rare twin orangutans? One such pair was born in Indonesia to a female Sumatran orangutan named Gober. After a period of observation, conservationists released Gober and her babies back into the wild, but they were left stunned when Gober abandoned one of them just hours later.

“She barely tried to keep (the twins) together,”

explained the head of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.

“The mothering instinct is really strong, but in hindsight, seeing how difficult it was for Gober to travel around with one twin, expecting her to do that with two of them was probably a little bit ambitious.”

Nature or Nurture?

Would Gober have taken care of both babies if she could? Did circumstances force her to make a decision against her instincts as a mother? According to the personal reports of a primatologist on the scene, Gober abandoned the weaker twin, the boy, after he repeatedly fell behind his mother and sister. Was the ruthlessness of the animal kingdom at fault? Or did Gober abandon him with sadness in her heart after deciding to expend all her energy on her daughter, the one child she thought could make it in the wilderness?

There’s simply no way of knowing what went on in her mind as she left, and this is one of the reasons it’s so important to study higher and nurturing primates when considering the question of motherhood.

What Motherhood Means

At the end of the day, nurturing primates aren’t so different from the rest of us. Orangutan mothers carry their children for nine months and raise them until they’re teenagers. They bond; they socialize; they love. You might be asking yourself why you should care about motherhood among higher primates. But what if the orangutans have something to teach us?

Motherhood is a complicated and many-varied thing, and we can only hope to understand it through a critical examination of motherhood as experienced by all species. Higher primates or the nurturing primates are simply one type of mother to study.

Plus, the next time your kid complains, just remind yourself: It could be worse. I could be an orangutan mother still breastfeeding him.

nurturing primates


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