Research presented to the Society for Experimental Biology’s meeting in Salzburg, Austria used street athletes to measure the energy expenditure of different modes of navigating a forest. What they discovered was swaying from tree to tree was the most efficient mode of travel for the orangutan.
Orangutans, sometimes referred to as the “old man of the forest”, primarily dwell high in the tree canopy. They are the largest of the tree dwelling animals. Dr. Lewis Halsey of the University of Roehampton set out find out why it is they get about the forest the way they do. Using Parkour athletes, which are athletes that specialize in efficient movement around obstacles, they measured the energy it takes to move from tree to tree using different modes of locomotion. They outfitted the athletes with masks that measured their oxygen levels while performing various tasks similar to what the orangutans would do. Using humans as stand-ins was the only logical way as orangutans are not likely to cooperate with masks as they climbed about an obstacle course. In the BBC footage embedded below, you can see the athletes performing the various exercises.
According to Dr. Halsey, the Parkour athletes were the perfect stand-in for they are “professional parkour practitioners (free runners) who display elite gymnastic and athletic abilities.” They used the athletes to measure 3 types of locomotion: swaying, climbing, and leaping. What the team discovered is that swaying through the trees is the most efficient way for these large animals to travel about. This also explains how the orangutans are able to live on a diet of mostly fruit which is not a significant source of energy.
These studies will provide more information about the habitat necessary to maintain the highly endangered species. For more information about the study visit the University of Roehampton’s website.