June 26, 2001
Primates into Pixels: Professor Looks for
Computer Clues to Orangutan Development
Computer technology has been used to
unlock all sorts of human mysteries. Now a California State
University, Sacramento professor is applying that technology
to one of humankind's close relatives.
Anthropology professor Samantha Hens leaves July 5 to spend
five weeks in European museums, studying orangutan growth
and development. Using state-of-the-art digitizing equipment,
Hens and a student assistant will take measurements of more
than 600 orangutan skulls. They hope that what they learn
about this increasingly rare species, considered critically
endangered by the World Conservation Union, may also offer
clues about other endangered primates like gorillas and chimpanzees.
Very few researchers have applied three-dimensional digitizing
technology to the study of primates. And no one has used it
to study orangutans before. The resulting data will give Hens
a three-dimensional reading of each skull and enough information
to make assumptions about the stages of orangutan development
and how it differs between males and females.
"It is a new way of doing analysis. You get the subtleties
you can't get from a flat measurement," she says. "It's
pretty exciting. It maintains the geometry of the organism."
Hens started her digitizing work during a post-doctoral fellowship
at Johns Hopkins University. A trial run using the collection
in the Smithsonian showed the method had promise, but she
was only able to look at 100 skulls, not enough to provide
The European collections Hens will study this summer are significant
because they come from animals that were killed by big game
hunters in the 1800s. She feels they will provide her with
a more accurate picture of what orangutans in the wild are
like than zoo specimens because orangutans that are raised
in a zoo can develop differently.
Hens also believes the wide range of specimens will allow
her to track sex differences across the growth spectrum. "Orangutans
are highly sexually dimorphic," Hens says. "Adult
male orangutans are much larger than the females and have
a distinctly different appearance, like male and female lions."
"But," Hens asks, "when do they become different?
Is it a gradual process? Is it at the same rate for males
Hens admits that hers is fundamental research, but says it's
necessary because Asian apes are understudied. There are only
two known subspecies of orangutans, one on Sumatra and one
on Borneo. As part of her comparative research, she will look
for subspecies differences to see if there is evidence of
additional subspecies. She also feels that what she learns
about orangutans may have implications for other apes and
She expects to release her findings next summer.
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