Orangutans Have Distinct Artistic Styles Too!

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The artworks were created by five orangutans at Japan's Tama Zoological Park (Credit: Tama Zoo)

To a casual observer, the artwork in the image above may appear to be the scribbles of a toddler or — as is the case here — orangutans. However, a new study by French scientists has found that the seemingly random patterns showcase the primate artists' distinct style and ability, and possibly even state of mind.

Cédric Sueur, a primatologist at the University Institute of France, thought about taking a closer look at artwork done by the great apes after noticing his young daughter doodling "as if it had meaning." For their study, the team decided to focus on orangutans, with whom we share 97 percent of DNA. They reached out to Japan's Tama Zoological Park, whose resident orangutans are encouraged to draw as part of their enrichment activities.

Kiki, a 10-year-old orangutan, was a minimalist (Credit: Tama Zoo)

The team received 1,400 crayon masterpieces created by five orangutans between 2006 and 2016. A majority — 1,299 — were done by Molly, a Bornean orangutan who took up art at the age of 54. However, the great ape, who died in 2011, made up for the late start by completing over 1,500 drawings in just five years. Molly's keeper's records showed that she "took time to draw," Sueur says. "The others would finish their compositions very quickly, but she would work on hers for an hour or more at a time."

The 793 artworks selected for the study comprised similar basic motifs, described by the researchers as loops, circles, and "fan patterns." However, there were significant differences in the styles. For example, Molly pressed less on the crayons and used a greater variety of strokes than the other orangutans. Meanwhile, Kiki, a 10-year-old great ape, seemed to prefer a minimalist color palette and pressed harder on the crayons to draw.

An orangutan named Molly liked to use green for her artwork during summer and winter (Credit: Tama Zoo)

A separate analysis of just Molly's drawings revealed other interesting insights. The team noticed that her drawings appeared to reflect her day's experience. For example, the artwork created after a visit from a group of elementary school children was more vibrant and complex than the ones she did on the previous two days. Sueur and his team speculate the visit may have motivated Molly to draw more profusely. The primate also seemed to prefer using purple crayons in spring and green crayons during summer and winter.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Animals on November 9, 2021, attribute the differences in the paintings to personality and even different cognitive abilities. They hope that the orangutan drawings — which resemble those of young children — may provide clues into the evolution of human art.

Resources: mdpi.com,.bbc.co.uk,tuftsdaily.com, science.org

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108 Comments
  • rosekitty
    rosekitty2 days
    This is like the book the one and only Ivan
    • sunshinekitty8s
      😂 lol 😂
      • ambush06
        ambush062 days
        I agree with you Miss sunshinekitty8s
      • imjosh
        imjosh4 days
        so cool!!
        • rockstar_27
          BTW I like Molly's the best :)
          • iheartdogonews
            Why do people say that dolphins are the smartest animals i think monkeys and orangutans are!!
            • whiterabbit2012
              That's so cool!
              • lilean
                lilean11 days
                Molly is so great a drawing for a Orangutan!!
                • person31
                  person3113 days
                  Woooow so cool!
                  • wadesam
                    wadesam13 days
                    Orangutants are like me they like to color and they do to
                    • frogger14
                      frogger1413 days
                      This is so cool! My friend and I were discussing how old Molly was when she died. This article is great for conversation!
                      • frogger14
                        frogger1410 days
                        BTW I like Molly's the best :)