Patterns of Gazing in Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus)
Eyes play an important role in communication amongst humans and animals. However, relatively little is known about specific differences in eye morphology amongst primates and how these features might be associated with social structure and direction of gaze. We present a detailed study of gazing and eye morphology—exposed sclera and surrounding features—in orangutans. We measured gazing in rehabilitating orangutans in two contexts: interspecific viewing of the experimenter (with video camera) and intraspecific gazing (between subjects). Our findings show that direct staring is avoided and social looking is limited to certain age/social categories: juveniles engage in more looking at other orangutans than do adults or infants. While orangutans use eye movements in social communication, they avoid the more prolonged mutual gaze that is characteristic of humans, and also apparent in chimpanzees and gorillas. Detailed frame-by-frame analysis of videotapes from field and zoo studies of orangutans revealed that they pay visual attention to both human observers and conspecifics by glancing sideways, with the head turned at an angle away from the subject being observed. Mutual gaze was extremely rare, and we have observed only two incidences of gaze following. Orangutans in captivity appear to use a more restricted pattern of gazes compared to free-living, rehabilitating ones, possibly suggesting the presence of a pathological condition (such as depression) in the captive subjects. Our findings have implications for further investigations of social communication and cognition in orangutans.