Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) point to inform a human about the location of a tool

Felizitas Zimmermann*, Franziska Zemke, Josep Call, Juan-Carlos Gomez

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


Although pointing is not part of great apes' natural gestural repertoire, they can learn to point to food, in order to request it. To assess the flexibility with which they can use this gesture, one can vary the potential referent of the point. In two previous studies, three orangutans (two of them human-reared) have shown the ability to point to the location of a tool which a human experimenter needed in order to give them food. Here, we tested six orangutans and five bonobos using a set-up in which our subjects had to guide a human experimenter to the hiding place of a fork which was needed in order to retrieve a piece of food for the subject out of a vertical tube. We further examined the potential role of a competitive/deceptive context by varying the identity of the person responsible for hiding the tool. In addition, we implemented three different control conditions in which an object was hidden but it was not necessary to indicate its location to get the food. We found that the majority of subjects spontaneously guided the experimenter to the hiding place of the fork by pointing to it when it was necessary and they did so significantly less in control conditions. We did not find an effect of the person hiding the fork. Our results show that mother-reared orangutans and bonobos are able to point to inform a human about the location of an object that the human needs to procure food for the subject and that they can take into account whether it is relevant or not to do so.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)347-358
Number of pages12
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number2
Early online date24 Oct 2008
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2009


  • Orangutans
  • Bonobos
  • Pointing
  • Flexibility
  • Theory of mind
  • Intentional communication
  • 18-month-olds know
  • Chimpanzees know
  • Troglodytes
  • Others
  • Conspecifics
  • Behavior
  • See


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