Environmental Geochemistry and Health

, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 51–64 | Cite as

Bornean orangutan geophagy: analysis of ingested and control soils

  • William C. Mahaney
  • Ronald G. V. Hancock
  • Susan Aufreiter
  • Michael W. Milner
  • Joan Voros
Original Paper


Geophagy among orangutans is the most poorly documented in contrast to the knowledge of soil-eating practices of other great ape species. Observations of soil consumption by orangutans in the Sungai Wain Forest Preserve (Wanariset) of Borneo are presented, along with physico-mineral–chemical analyses of the ingested soil in an effort to understand what might stimulate the activity. The consumed soils are: light colored, not excessively weathered by normal standards, higher in the clay size fraction relative to controls, and are comprised of a mix of clay minerals without any specificity of 1:1, 2:1 and/or 2:1:1 (Si:Al) species. The geophagic soils contain chlorides below detection limits, effectively eliminating salt as a stimulus. Soil chemical and geochemical analyses confirm that orangutans prefer soils with pH levels near or above 4.0, while controls are consistently lower (pH = 3.5–4.0), a considerable difference in acidity for at least four out of six soils consumed. Geochemical analysis shows Al, Fe and K are high in the consumed vs control samples; higher Al follows from higher clay percentages in the consumed earth. Iron and K may play physiological roles, but Fe is mostly in the ferrous form (Fe+2) and may not be readily taken up by the animals. The preferential choice of consumed samples, with pH above 4.0 and higher clay contents, may promote a more beneficial intestinal environment.


Orangutan geophagy Great ape nutrition Diet and pharmacology Mineral and chemical composition of geophagic soils 



This research was carried out with funding from Quaternary Surveys, Toronto and a minor research grant from York University to WCM. We thank Anne Russon (York University) for collecting the samples and making them available to us for analysis.


  1. Abrahams, P. W., & Parsons, J. A. (1997). Geophagy in the tropics: An appraisal of three geophagical materials. Environmental Geochemistry and Health, 19, 19–22.Google Scholar
  2. Aufreiter, S., Mahaney, W. C., Hancock, R. G. V., & Stambolic, A. (1997). Geochemistry and mineralogy of soils eaten by humans. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 40, 447–460.Google Scholar
  3. Aufreiter, S., Mahaney, W. C., Milner, M. W., Hancock, R. G. V., Huffman, M., Wink, M., et al. (2001). Mineralogical and chemical interactions of soils eaten by chimpanzees of the Mahale and Gombe Stream National Parks, Tanzania. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 27, 285–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bower, C. A., & Wilcox, L. V. (1965). Soluble salts. In C. A. Black (Ed.), Methods of soil analysis, part 2 (pp. 933–951). Madison, WI: American Society Agronomy.Google Scholar
  5. Caton, J. M., Hume, I. D., Hill, D. M., & Harper, P. (1999). Digesta retention in the Gastro-intestinal tract of the Orang Utan (Pongo pygmaeus). Primates, 40(4), 551–558.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Day, P. E. (1965). Particle fractionation and particle size analysis. In C. A. Black (Ed.), Methods of soil analysis (pp. 545–567). Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy.Google Scholar
  7. Diatloff, E., Roberts, M., Sanders, D., & Roberts, S. K. (2004). Characterization of anion channels in the plasma membrane of Arabidopsis epidermal root cells and the identification of a citrate-permeable channel induced by phosphate starvation. Plant Physiology,. doi: 10.1104/pp.104.046995.Google Scholar
  8. Dierenfeld, E. S. (1997). Orangutan nutrition. In C. Sodaro (Ed.), Orangutan SSP husbandry manual. Brookfield, IL: Orangutan SSP and Brookfield Zoo.Google Scholar
  9. Fossey, D. (1983). Gorillas in the mist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  10. Goodall, J. (1986). The chimpanzee of Gombe. Patterns of behaviour. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Hamilton, R. A., & Galdikas, B. M. F. (1994). A preliminary study of food selection by the orang-utan in relation to plant quality. Primates, 35(3), 255–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hanahan, D., & Weinberg, R. A. (2000). The hallmarks of cancer. Cell, 100, 57–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hancock, R. G. V. (1984). On the source of clay used for Cologne Roman pottery. Archaeometry, 26, 210–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Harrison, T. P., & Hancock, R. G. V. (2005). Geochemical analysis and sociocultural complexity: A case study from early Iron Age Megiddo (Israel). Archaeometry, 47, 705–722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ji, Y. J., & Cui, M. Z. (1988). Toxicological studies on safety of rare earths used in agriculture. Biomedical Environment Sciences, 1(3), 270–276.Google Scholar
  16. Ke, (1999). Geophagy in the golden-faced saki monkey (Pithecia pithecia chrysocephala) in the Central Amazon. Journal Zoological Society London, 277, 91–103.Google Scholar
  17. Kempf, E. (2009). Patterns of water use in primates. Folia Primatologica, 80, 275–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ketch, L. A., Malloch, D., Mahaney, W. C., & Huffman, M. (2001). Comparative microbial analysis and clay mineralogy of soils eaten by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in Tanzania. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 33, 199–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Klein, N., Fruhlich, F., & Krief, S. (2008). Geophagy: Soil consumption enhances the bioactivities of plants eaten by chimpanzees. Naturwissenschaften, 95, 325–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Knott, C. D. (1998). Changes in orangutan caloric intake, energy balance and ketones in response to fluctuating fruit availability. International Journal of Primatology, 19, 1061–1079.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kreulen, D. A. (1985). Lick use by large herbivores: A review of benefits and banes of soil consumption. Mammal Review, 15, 107–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Krishnamani, R., & Mahaney, W. C. (2000). Geophagy among primates; adaptive significance and ecological consequences. Animal Behaviour, 59, 899–915.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Mahaney, W. C. (1990). Ice on the Equator. Ellison Bay, WI: W.M Caxton Ltd.Google Scholar
  24. Mahaney, W. C. (1993). Scanning electron microscopy of earth mined and eaten by mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains, Rwanda. Primates, 34(3), 311–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Mahaney, W. C. (2002). Atlas of sand grain surface textures and applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Mahaney, W. C., Aufreiter, S., & Hancock, R. G. V. (1995a). Mountain gorilla geophagy: A possible seasonal behavior for dealing with the effects of dietary changes. International Journal of Primatology, 16(3), 475–488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Mahaney, W. C., Hancock, R. G. V., Aufreiter, S., & Huffman, M. A. (1996). Geochemistry and clay mineralogy of termite mound soil and the role of geophagy in chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania. Primates, 37(2), 121–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Mahaney, W. C., & Krishnamani, R. (2003). Understanding geophagy in animals: Standard procedures of sampling soils. Journal of Chemical Ecology, 29, 1477–1499.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mahaney, W. C., Milner, M. W., Aufreiter, S., Hancock, R. G. V., Wrangham, R., & Campbell, S. (2005). Geophagy soils consumed by chimpanzees of the Kanyawara community in the Kibale Forest, Uganda. International Journal of Primatology, 26, 1375–1397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mahaney, W. C., Milner, M. W., Mulyono, H., Hancock, R. G. V., Aufreiter, S., Reich, M., & Wink, M. (2000). Mineral and chemical analyses of soils eaten by humans in Indonesia. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 10, 93–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mahaney, W. C., Milner, M. W., Sanmugadas, K., Hancock, R. G. V., Aufreiter, S., Wrangham, R., & Pier, H. W. (1997). Geophagy amongst chimpanzees in Kibale forest, Uganda, [Analysis of geophagy soils in Kibale Forest, Uganda]. Primates, 38(2), 159–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Mahaney, W. C., Stambolic, A., Knezevich, M., Hancock, R. G. V., Aufreiter, S., Sanmugadas, K., et al. (1995b). Geophagy amongst rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. Primates, 36(3), 323–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mahaney, W. C., Watts, D. P., & Hancock, R. G. V. (1990). Geophagia by mountain gorillas (Gorilla gorilla beringei) in the Virunga Mountains, Rwanda. Primates, 31(1), 113–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mahaney, W. C., Zippin, J., Milner, M. W., Sanmugadas, K., Hancock, R. G. V., Aufreiter, S., et al. (1999). Chemistry, mineralogy and microbiology of termite mound soil eaten by chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains, Western Tanzania. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 15, 565–588.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Matsubayashi, H., Lagan, P., Majalap, N., Tanagah, J., Sukor, J. R. A., & Kitayama, K. (2006). Importance of natural licks for the mammals in Bornean inland tropical rain forests. Ecological Research,. doi: 10.1007/s11284-006-0313-4.Google Scholar
  36. Oates, J. F. (1978). Water-plant and soil consumption by guereza monkeys (Colobus guereza): A relationship with minerals and toxins in the diet? Biotropica, 10, 241–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Oyama, M., & Takehara, H. (1970). Standard soil color charts. Forestry and Fisheries: Japan Research Council for Agriculture.Google Scholar
  38. Palizban, A. A., Sadeghi-Aliabadi, H., & Abdollahpour, F. (2010). Effect of cerium lanthanide on Hela and MCF-7 cancer cell growth in the presence of transferring. Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences, 5(2), 119–125.Google Scholar
  39. Plumptre, A. J., Reynolds, V. & Bakuneeta, C. (1994). The contribution of fruit eating primates to seed dispersal and natural regeneration after selective logging. ODA project R 4738 report.Google Scholar
  40. Pontzer, H., Raichen, D. A., Shumacher, R. W., Ocobock, C., & Wich, S. A. (2010). Metabolic adaptation for low energy throughput in orangutans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(32), 14048–14052.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Reynolds, V., Plumptre., A. J., Greenham, J., & Harborne, J. (1998). Condensed tanning and sugars in the diet of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in the Budongo Forest, Uganda. Oecologia, 115, 331–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Russon, A. E. (2002). Return of the native: Cognition and site-specific expertise in orangutan rehabilitation. International Journal of Primatology, 23(3), 461–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Russon, A. E. & Susilo, A. (1999). The effects of the 1997–98 droughts and fires on orangutans in Sungai Wain Protection Forest, E. Kalimantan, Indonesia. In: H. Suhartoyo & T. Toma (Eds.), Impacts of fire and human activities on forest ecosystems in the tropics: Proceedings of the third international symposium on Asian tropical forest management (pp. 348–372). Samarinda, Indonesia: Tropical Forest Research Center, Mulawarman University and Japan International Cooperation Agency.Google Scholar
  44. Russon, A. E., et al. (2009). Geographic variation in orangutan diet. In S. Wich, S. Utami Atmoko, T. Mitra Setia, & C. van Schaik (Eds.), Orangutans: Geographic variation in behavioral ecology and conservation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Schmidt, D. A., Kerley, M. S., Dampsey, J. L., Porton, I. J., Porter, J. H., Griffin, M. E., et al. (2005). Fiber digestibility by the Orangutan (Pongo abelii): In vitro and in vivo. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, 36(4), 571–580.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Setz, E. Z. F., Enzweiler, J., Solferini, V. N., Amendola, M. P., & Berton, R. S. (1999). Geophagy in the golden-faced saki monkey (Pithecia pithecia chrysocephala) in the Central Amazon. Journal Zoological Society London, 277, 91–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Stambolic-Robb, A. (1997). Geophagy amongst free-ranging Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) of Gunung Leuser National Park and rehabilitated Borneo Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus) of Sungai Wain Forest, Indonesia. MSc. Thesis, York University, pp. 117.Google Scholar
  48. Turra, C., Fernandes, E. A. N., & Bacchi, M. A. (2011). Evaluation on rare earth elements of Brazilian agricultural supplies. Journal of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology, 3(4), 86–92.Google Scholar
  49. Tweheyo, M., & Obua, J. (2001). Feeding habits of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), red tailed monkeys (Cercopithecus ascanius schmidti) and blue monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis stuhlmanii) on figs in Budongo Forest Reserve, Uganda. African Journal of Ecology, 39, 1–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Voros, J., (2000). Geophagy by rehabilitated Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus) in Sungai Wain Forest, Indonesian Borneo, MSc. Thesis, Dept. of Geography, York University, Toronto.Google Scholar
  51. Voros, J., Mahaney, W. C., Krishnamani, R. K., Aufreiter, S., Hancock, R. G. V., & Milner, M. W. (2001). Geophagy by the Bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata) of Southern India: A preliminary analysis. Primates, 42, 327–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Wang, L., & Liang, T. (2014). Effects of exogenous rare earth elements on phosphorus adsorption and desorption in different types of soils. Chemosphere, 103, 148–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wei, Z. L., Rui, Y. K. & Tian, Z. H. (2009). Content of rare earth elements in wild Hypericum japonicum Thunb. Published by NIH, US National Library of Medicine (on line only).Google Scholar
  54. Whittig, L. D. (1965). X-ray diffraction techniques for numerical identification and mineralogical composition. In C. A. Black (Ed.), Methods of soil analysis (pp. 671–696). Madison WI: American Society Agronomy.Google Scholar
  55. Wrangham, R. W., Conklin, N. L., Chapman, C. A., & Hunt, K. D. (1991). The significance of fibrous foods for Kibale forest chimpanzees. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Science, 334(171), 178.Google Scholar
  56. Yamazaki, S., Takeda, S., Torii, E., Suzuki, S., Shimizu, M., & Kurotori, H. (2010). Pedological analysis of geophagic behaviours in captive Borneo Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Primate Research, 26(1), 59–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Zhang, H., Feng, J., Shu, W., Liu, C., Xu, S., Wu, D., et al. (2000). Chronic toxicity of rare-earth elements on human beings: Implications of blood biochemical indices in REE-high regions, South Jiangxi. Biological Trace Element Research, 73, 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • William C. Mahaney
    • 1
    • 2
  • Ronald G. V. Hancock
    • 3
  • Susan Aufreiter
    • 4
  • Michael W. Milner
    • 5
  • Joan Voros
    • 2
  1. 1.Quaternary SurveysThornhillCanada
  2. 2.Department of GeographyYork UniversityNorth YorkCanada
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyMcMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada
  4. 4.The Research InstituteThe Hospital for Sick ChildrenTorontoCanada
  5. 5.MWM ConsultingTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations