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Definition: orangutan from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1691) : a largely herbivorous arboreal anthropoid ape (Pongo pygmaeus) of Borneo and Sumatra that is about ⅔ as large as the gorilla and has brown skin, long sparse reddish-brown hair, and very long arms


Summary Article: orangutan
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(ōrăng'ʊtăn), an ape of the genus Pongo, found in rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. Highly specialized for arboreal life, orangutans usually travel by grasping branches with hands and feet and moving from tree to tree. Adult males are about 4 1/2 ft (1.4 m) tall and weigh up to 180 lbs (82 kg). Their arms are very long, the total span sometimes exceeding 7 ft (2.1 m). Their legs are short and bowed, making ground travel awkward; they walk with a side-to-side shuffle on all fours. The body is rotund and covered with long hair in various shades of red. The face of a young orangutan looks quite human; the name means “forest person” in Malay. Old males usually develop large cheek pads and facial hair that resembles a man's moustache and beard. Enormous throat pouches also develop with sexual maturation, which starts at about age 14.

Adult orangutans are basically solitary, except for mother-offspring pairs; however, weaned juveniles sometimes congregate in small groups. Males are aggressive toward each other and fight over females. Individual nests are usually constructed in trees each night. Fruit is a diet mainstay, and orangutans are important seed distributors.

The numbers of orangutans have dropped precipitously in the early 21st cent. owing to loss of habitat to deforestation (logging, forest fires, and clearing of land for plantations) and the killing of females for their young, to be sold as pets or zoo animals. The three species are listed as endangered or, in the case of the two species found on Sumatra, critically endangered. Orangutans are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae.

  • See Galdikas, B. , Orangutan Adaptation at Tanjung Puting Reserve, Central Borneo (1978);.
  • Schwartz, J. H. , The Red Ape (1987).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018