Hi Reddit! My name is Robert Rodriguez Suro and I am a field biologist and photographer. I was recently awarded a National Geographic Young Explorer's Grant for a project that I'm organizing in the rainforests of West Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia. After graduating from Boston University in 2013, where I graduated with a B.A. in Biology and Anthropology, I started working at Dr. Cheryl Knott's orangutan research project in Indonesia. I lived in the rainforest for a year, as a research assistant. I followed orangutans around all day, collecting what they ate for analysis in the lab. You could also say that I worked as a professional orangutan urine catcher! We collect their urine in order to test it for hormones and other compounds that can tell us about their health. One of my favorite jobs, and the one that became my main responsibility during my time as a research assistant, was photographing orangutans. Wild orangutans can be really hard to tell apart! I used my past photography experience to take great photos of them, and build a database of images that can be used to ID them and tell them apart.

In a couple months, I'll be heading back to the forests of Borneo to begin my National Geographic Young Explorer's project. This is an independet project that I'm carrying out, to unravel the mysteries of male orangutan territory size and ranging patterns. We don't have very accurate models of how large their territories are because their territories are so large that they overlap most research sites. So when they exit the research trail system, we usually just let them go and return to camp. So there is all this data that is missing from beyond the borders of the research site! My mission is to unravel this mystery by equipping myself with enough food gear and supplies to follow them beyond the borders. I'll be camping out in the rainforest for days in a row, tracking male orangutans via GPS and surviving only on what we can carry on our backs. Besides getting this valuable ranging data, I'll be documenting their behavior on photo and video. Orangutans have a wealth of cultural behaviors, some of them very rarely observed. By following them for longer periods, I'll be able to capture these behaviors when they occur. Documenting these behaviors is not only important for scientists, but also help to promote orangutan conservation. Orangutans are slowly but surely dwindling in numbers, and one day, this footage may be all we have left of them. Let's hope that's not the case, but that's why we're workign hard to study these orangutans and learn how best to conserve them.

I'm currently running a fundraiser on EXPERIMENT.COM/ORANGUTANS for this project! I'm about halfway to the $5000 goal, and have 26 more days to get there! It's all or nothing funding, so if we don't reach the goal, the pledges don't get awarded! So it's important to reach the goal! TODAY ONLY, Experiment.com is matching all donations made until midnight PST, or 3AM EST. So if you would like to help out, NOW IS THE BEST TIME! Lots of bonuses in store for donors, including photos and updates straight from the field! And you can feel good for supporting science research and conservation, especially if you love animals.

You can follow my adventures (and see all of my photos!) here:
Instagram: @rrsuro
Facebook: Robert Rodriguez Suro
Twitter: @rrsuro


PROOF: https://twitter.com/rrsuro/status/613124401505042432

EDIT: It's time for bed! I'll keep answering questions tomorrow morning, and can take new questions! Thanks for the turnout!

Edit 2: I've been back and can continue answering questions for a while! Ask away! Also, just reached the goal for the fundraiser!! Experiment.com is great and I recommend it. It's still running for another 25 days so you can still donate!

Edit 3: I'm on the road and signal is poor so can't write from my phone. I'll try to answer the remaining questions later today! But for now, remember to follow me on instagram twitter and fb to follow my adventures in the rainforest!

Comments: 54 • Responses: 18  • Date: 

bittenbyducks6 karma

Have you heard of Terry Pratchett's Librarian?

rrsuro5 karma

No, tell me about it!

return_to_the_source4 karma

Is it true that Donald Trump's mother had sex with an orangutan approximately 9 months prior to giving birth to him?

rrsuro11 karma

I doubt it, orangutans have better hair than he does. But it's an interesting hypothesis.

b0rad0y3 karma

Have you ever felt like you were in danger around them?

rrsuro14 karma

In the logical part of my brain, no. No researcher has ever been attacked by orangutans in any research site ever. But in the moment? HELL YES. There was one time where I was trying to track down this big flanged male named Codet (this guy). He had long called (a call they make which can be heard from really far away), and I headed off in the direction I thought he was at. He stopped long calling before I reached him, but I kept going, guessing where he could be. I was just walking around, looking in all directions, when all of a sudden he drops down to the ground right in front of me, grabs two small trees, and just bends them down all the way to the ground in a display of power. He was trying to psych me out. I almost shat my pants, but slowly backed away, trying not to show fear. If you run, they will chase you down. That's what they teach us anyways. Not to show any fear, and just stand your ground. As soon as I hid behind a tree, I peeked out and saw him walking away on the ground. I started walking behind him again, so as not to lose him. He immediately turned around and charged me again. I just stood still. My pants were probably soiled at that point anyways haha. I managed not to flinch, and he turned around and kept going on his way. Needless to say, after that I just let him go. You got to learn when the orangutan wants to be left alone.

Jackandahalfass3 karma

Are orangutans endangered? Do you see evidence of human damage to their habitat?

rrsuro6 karma

Yes, endangered! The bornean species are doing a lot better than the sumatran ones, which are critically endangered, but the bornean ones are endangered as well. You can see evidence of human damage, but thankfully where I work is one of the better protected national parks. Less logging there than other places, and the forest is mostly primary rainforest.

PartyFriend2 karma

How do orang-utans communicate with each other? Is it anything like human conversation?

rrsuro4 karma

There is nothing quite like human communication because other species lack a language like we do. But there are really close similarities in body language and posturing. It makes sense, because we share a common ancestor with orangutans. In terms of sounds, they have a large repertoire of vocalizations. My favorite is the kiss squeak. It's literally a kissing sound made exactly like humans would make it...by pursing their lips and blowing a kiss. But it's not meant to be a cute thing like in humans. It's actually a somewhat aggressive sounds, and they tend to make it when they want to scare off another creature, or when they are threatening another orangutan...saying in a sense to "back off". That's anthropomorphizing a bit, but it's difficult to talk about orangutans in a casual way without doing that...precisely because they are so similar to us.

Haole_Boy2 karma

Hello, What was it like the first time you encountered orangutan sex?

rrsuro10 karma

Haha. I thought this was a joke question, but then I rememberd that I saw TONS of orangutan sex while in Borneo. So it's actually a pretty relevant question. So it's actually pretty surprising how similar orangutans are to humans when it comes to sex. For starters, they do a lot foreplay. Like, even more than most humans I think. But really, that's only when the sex is not coerced (i.e., the female consents to the male's advances). Male orangutans can be extremely coercive and will grab females and force themselves onto them. Surprisingly though, I have to say that most of the sexual encounters I witnessed (and there were a lot!) were pretty consensual. I saw tons of oral sex, both female to male and male to female. They smell each other's parts before sex too. It's like they are inspecting each other. Sometimes, they can last a REALLY long time. Way longer than most humans, that's for sure. I didn't see this particular sexual encounter, but someone else at camp said she saw a male and female go at it for 2 hours in a row. Since they also mate up in the tree branches, they can adopt really crazy and interesting positions when mating. I recorded a few mating bouts on video actually (is that creepy?)

PretzelPirate2 karma

You probably aren't checking replies anymore, but what is your opinion on Palm fruit oil?

rrsuro3 karma

It's the #1 threat against orangutans and the rainforest in Indonesia. But it's one of those things that is SO common in an absurd amount of products that it's really hard to fight against it. It may be impossible to eradicate its use, but perhapd we can prevent further expansion of the palm oil industry...meaning, no new forests cut down for the sake of palm oil

PretzelPirate3 karma

That's good to hear. I hate palm oil and avoid using it, but it's hard to get my co-workers to understand the damage it does. It might not help that I'm one of those crazy vegans, so people take my animal welfare concerns with a grain of salt.

My girlfriend and I are starting to look into volunteering at an orangutan rehab facility for a month. Do you have recommendations on which ones are good?

rrsuro4 karma

I don't have any hands-on experience with any of them, but I can recommend the one in Ketapang, West Kalimantan. It's run by Karmele Sanchez of International Animal Rescue. They get volunteers every month and everyone seems to enjoy it. They do great work, and I think they were featured on NatGeo TV recently. They operate out of the same town our orangutan project does.

Kato91CRX2 karma

Congrats on the NG grant.

As a professional Orangutan urine catcher, did you ever, you know, do the Bear Grylls challenge?

rrsuro2 karma

Thanks! Well, so far I have not yet been so dehydrated that I've needed to pull a Bear Grylls. But I hear their urine is sterile, so maybe next time.

Fidesphilio2 karma

How did you wind up with such a cool job? And who gets to name the animals?

rrsuro5 karma

Networking in college! Talking to your professors is really important. It started as a volunteer experience, for which I got funding from the university, and it went off from there! As far as naming the animals, it's usually the person that first finds an unidentified orangutan. Sometimes deciding whether an orangutan is new to us, or deciding that we simply can't tell it apart from another one that is already named and ID'd, can make it difficult. So unless we're absolutely sure an orangutan is new, we usually label it an unidentified. Eventually, if we can build enough evidence that it is a new individual, we'll name it. That's where photography helps a lot.

GuitarAntiStar1 karma

My co-worker is about to go do some volunteer work at the facility you named a couple of weeks from now. (Odd that you'd post an AMA now--good timing.) What piece of advice would you give her if you could only offer one? Can be about the trip to Borneo, working at the facility, what to expect with the locals... anything will probably be helpful.

rrsuro5 karma

Oh, how about that! I'll probably meet her then, how long will she be there? Hmmm I would say just to try learning Indonesian right away! It's easy to learn, and really amplifies the experience because most people don't speak English. I think it was also really nice to have a kindle, because reading is one of those activities that you come to really value at camp. If she has to go through the permit process in Jakarta, tell her to stay at Six Degrees hostel! I had a great time there. Of course, hostels aren't for everyone, but this one is really nice! And in terms of interacting with Indonesians, it's definitely an interesting experience! People are very welcoming but definitely have a different concept of privacy. People can also be very indirect when compared to westerners. But I love Indonesia, and learning from its people is a great experience, so tell her to keep an open mind!

rrsuro5 karma

Also, a hammock was my most prized possesion at camp. Nothing beats relaxing in a hammock in the jungle when not working.

DST31 karma

Do the orangutans have a sort of like ranking system? Like is there a head orangutan that leads all the others?

rrsuro3 karma

Not really. Orangutans are solitary for the most part, and lack a social hierarchy like the kind you see in chimps, and most extremely in monkeys like rhesus macaques. Adult .ale orangutans usually don't tolerate other males...they almost never socialize with each other.

GhostCheese1 karma

How's your internet connection out there in the rain forest?

rrsuro2 karma

Obviously no google fiber out there! But considering how remote it is (it takes an 8-hour canoe ride to get to the research site from the nearest village), it is surprising that we have some sort of connection at all! We are only able to connect to the internet using phones. There is not much signal, so it's not ideal. Far from it actually. We have to hang our phones from plastic bags when loading something or sending out a text because even the slightest touch from your hand can make it lose signal. Some phones are better than others though. I had an iPhone 4 last year and it was awful. Other people with blackberries had a much easier time. I'm going back with a Moto X this time, because it apparently has the best antenna. So maybe my connection will be better this time around.

dyskgo1 karma

When you say you "live with wild orangutans", do you actually live with them (i.e. sleeping with them, eating with them, etc.) or do you just live around them and go out to research them?

You said researchers have never been attacked by orangutans, but if a regular person was just dropped into their environment, would the orangutans kill them?

rrsuro3 karma

Well, I suppose I was embellishing a bit in the title. I don't live with them in that sense. I could't even if I wanted to because besides it not being ethical to have physical contact with wild orangutans, they don't have a social system that would be compatible with me interacting with them in that close way. There are videos of gorillas "welcoming" humans into their group...I remember one specifically of a photographer who was approached by a big silverback. He was being "tested", and eventully the gorilla " accepted" him. That's anthropomorphizing again, but for the purpose of the explanation it's ok. That sort of interaction would never happen in orangutans because even amongst themselves they don't do that. There is no group structure, and thus no need to "accept" anyone into the group. Individuals are mostly solitary. When orangutans see younfor the first time, they are a bit fearful and make noises and throw branches down to try to scare you away. But eventually they get habituated and then they just ignore you completely.

rrsuro3 karma

Oh, and re: humans being attacked by orangutans. You would really have to do something ridiculous like charge a male orangutan to be attacked. As long as you remain respectful of their space, it is safe. But I have heard of stories of orangutans raping women. Not sure how much truth there are to those, but if it is real those are probably cases of orangutans kept as pets and raised around humans. It probably wouldn't happen in the wild. Oh, speaking of, I think there was a case of an orangutan at a zoo that would become excited whenever it saw a red-headed woman. Orangutans have red hair.

Im__Bruce_Wayne__AMA1 karma

What has surprised you most while living with Orangutans in their natural environment?

rrsuro12 karma

I think the most surprising thing is how they socialize with one another. Physically, they are so similar to us, but they have a way less social group structure. Well, really there is very little group structure. Most individuals are solitary, and spend most of the time alone. The only relations that still maintain ties are mothers and daughters. They usually occupy the same area even when the daughter becomes independent, and hang out to eat together from time to time. Sons migrate from their home territory once they become independent. Males also do not provide any paternal investment after sex. They just move on. So the strongest relationship in orangutans is between mothers and offspring...and really between mothers and daughters. This is different from gorillas, chimpanzees, and of course humans! Which all socialize in big groups throughout their lives.

The other thing that surprised me is the variation between males! Male orangutans are really weird in that they can mature in one of two ways: some grow cheek pads when they mature, and others never do. No one really knows for sure why it happens, but they seem to be alternate mating strategies. The big flanged males are preferred by females, but they also have to be stronger in order to hold territory. The unflanged males are more "sneaky" and move throughout the forest without really maintaining a hold on a territory. Maybe from far away, they look like females and can avoid aggression from flanged males. Their mating strategy seems to be more "sneak and rape" whereas flanged males "sit and wait" for females, because females prefer flanged males.

efbpdx0 karma

Do they tend to form gangs and conduct illicit activities like drug dealing? And is saggy pants a prominent style? Thanks in advance.

rrsuro3 karma

Those activites have not yet been reported in the primatology literature, but I'll keep an eye out next time. This guy, Syklops, seems like a good contender. Dude's missing an eye, so he might have been involved in some serious underground shit.