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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 statistical significance.

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 and females?"

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 monkeys.

She expects to release her findings next summer.

More information is available by contacting the public affairs office at (916) 278-6156.


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