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Orangutans Make Their Point With 'Charades'

THURSDAY, Aug. 2 -- The next time you play charades, consider an orangutan as a partner.

Researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found that when orangutans use gestures to communicate, they employ the same basic strategy that humans use when playing the acting-out game.

In experiments with six captive orangutans, the Scottish team found that the apes modified or repeated hand signals or other gestures based on the success or failure of previous attempts at physical communication.

In the tests, the apes were presented with appealing and unappealing food items that could only be obtained with human help. The orangutans had to communicate with people in order to get the food they wanted.

"We were surprised that the orangutans' responses so clearly signaled their assessment of the audience's comprehension. Looking at the tapes of the animal's responses, you can easily work out whether the orangutan thinks it has been fully, partially, or not understood -- without seeing what went before," researcher Richard Byrne said in a prepared statement.

"This means that, in effect, they are passing information back to the audience about how well they are doing in understanding them, hence our 'charades' analogy," Byrne said. "In playing the game, you want primarily to convey your meaning non-verbally -- as does the orangutan -- but secondarily to help the team get your meaning by giving them hints as to how well they are doing."

The study was published in the Aug. 2 issue of the journal Current Biology.

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Posted: August 2007