SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
CALL OF THE WILD
When animals talk , Dr Marina Davila-Ross listens , and she is bringing a whole new level of understanding to the conservation of endangered species .
PHOTO : TIM LAMAN / WIKIMEDIACOMMONS
A Tapanuli orangutan looks for food in a tree in the Batang Toru forest area , South Tapanuli , North Sumatra .
C rouched in steaming Bornean jungle , armed with just a small tape recorder and microphone , Dr Marina Davila-Ross had cautiously crept to within 30 metres of a large male orangutan . She dared not move closer ; this was too special a moment to risk jeopardising by being overzealous .
The large ape had just started ‘ huituing ’, or calling . The young researcher , whose childhood love of animals had led to her becoming a specialist in their acoustic communication , was gripped with excitement . Most attempts to get clear recordings had failed . This time everything was perfect … although one part of her was hoping the big ape ’ s call wasn ’ t going to be a long one : “ I was being eaten alive by mosquitos .”
Dr Davila-Ross , from the University of Portsmouth ’ s Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology , recalls those early field expeditions when she was studying for her Master ’ s degree and how hard it was to get good-quality recordings that she could acoustically dissect : “ Most days I would just get lots of birds , or orangutans that were too far away for a clear analysis .”
This analysis of animal communication , which explores the structure of their acoustic signals , has become a key element in behavioural and evolutionary biology . It ’ s why many years after this fieldtrip , Dr Davila-Ross was part of an international team that made headlines with their discovery of a new orangutan species .
Discovering – and securing – a species The team had been studying a bearded and frizzyhaired orangutan found in an isolated pocket of the South Tapanuli region in the province of North Sumatra , Indonesia , as part of a conservation programme under the auspices of the International Union for Conservation of Nature . Scientists had determined there were only about 800 of the apes still surviving and their habitat was under threat from a proposed hydro dam . The Tapanuli orangutans looked different to the two known species of Sumatran and Bornean orangutans , but they couldn ’ t be confirmed as a separate species until an exhaustive study of their genetics , morphology and behaviour had been conducted , and this included their particular acoustic signals .
The team ’ s momentous finding – a new species of large ape – was published in 2017 , by which time the researchers were not only informing the world of a new species , but one that was already endangered . Tapanuli orangutans exist in a 1,000-square-kilometre
ISSUE 03 / 2021