The first indication Samboja was being nudged to find a partner came last year, when her home zoo — the Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands — took to Facebook to casually point out that the female orangutan was approaching the age where she could start having kids.
The approach is exactly what one might imagine it to be.
Zookeepers at the park, about 60 miles east of Amsterdam, say they will start using a tablet to show the orangutan pictures of available males from an international breeding program, according to the Guardian. Just, you know, as suggestions.
While there might not be any swiping left or right involved, researchers will pay attention to how Samboja responds to the images.
If she seems to prefer pictures of a certain male over others, that could help narrow down which potential breeding partner she meets up with in real life — which can often involve transporting at least one of the animals over long distances. In general, breeding programs aim to maximize genetic diversity for animals in captivity.
The goal of the four-year experiment, zoo officials said, is just like the one for Tinder for humans: to increase the chances of finding a mate.
“Often, animals have to be taken back to the zoo they came from without mating,” zoo biologist Thomas Bionda told the Dutch newspaper Tubantia, according to the Guardian. “Things don’t always go well when a male and a female first meet.”
There was only one hiccup as they proceeded with “Tinder for orangutans” — their devices weren’t strong enough for the animals.
Upon being handed a tablet, 11-year-old Samboja immediately destroyed it.
The Dutch zoo said it is seeking “an orangutan-proof screen” before it can continue the research.
A similar tactic — with less destructive results — was done last year at the Wilhelma Zoo in Stuttgart, Germany, in an effort to improve the birth rate for the endangered species.
Photos released by the German zoo last year showed two female orangutans named Conny and Sinta staring at a MacBook through a window, as a zookeeper showed them videos of potential mates from a European breeding program. (Conny, on the left, had her face tilted and eyes widened. Sinta, on the right and with a sheet tossed over her head, seemed less engaged.)
However, based on the “video dating,” Sinta apparently took a liking to a male orangutan named Gempa at a Belgian zoo.
“He also found Sinta appealing in the video,” a statement from Wilhelma Zoo said. The two were quickly united for a “date” in Belgium, but the meeting did not appear to produce any offspring.
Still, the German zoo found that some orangutan preferences persisted even when viewing potential partners through a screen.
“For orangutans, appearances appear to be an important factor in choosing a partner,” zoo official Marianne Holtkoetter said in a statement. “Apparently, many females find the cheeks attractive.”
The orangutan population first became threatened in the 1970s and 1980s with illegal logging in Indonesia, where 80 percent of wild orangutans are found, said Biruté Mary Galdikas, president and founder of Orangutan Foundation International.
Today, researchers are uncertain how many orangutans remain in the wild but estimates range from 45,000 to 60,000, including both Bornean and Sumatran species, she said.
“Orangutans have always bred successfully in captivity,” Galdikas said. “What has been a problem is to make sure that … they try to select the proper orangutans with breeding so that natural populations or natural subspecies of Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are maintained.”
As for the Tinder approach, Galdikas thought it was “a good first step” but suggested videos would be more effective than still photos.
“Female orangutans pick the males that they want by all senses,” she said. “They look at how they move, how big they are and also judge the strength of the long call [that adult male orangutans in the wild vocalize]. She might even like to smell him … I think there are a variety of ways of doing it. This might be a good first step.”
And even then, only a face-to-face meeting would reveal if two orangutans are a match.
“We may not know why she’s pointing at the picture,” Galdikas said. “It could be she couldn’t stand him … or is pointing to the ugliest one.”
The experiment at the Dutch zoo is in many ways a natural extension of research on primate emotions already conducted at Apenheul in conjunction with scientists from Leiden University in the Netherlands. Past experiments have included showing bonobos and orangutans pictures of their peers on a touch-screen device, the zoo said in a statement Tuesday.
Some photos showed the animals with neutral expressions and behaviors, while others showed positive behaviors or aggressive emotions. Afterward, researchers measured whether the primates responded to the photos by pressing a dot on the screen.
What they found was that apes were alert to the emotions of their peers.
“Moreover, the study of apes is a way to better understand the evolution of behavior and other concepts, such as cognition, emotion and empathy,” the zoo said.
The zoo hopes its research on primate emotions and how the animals respond to each other will allow them to improve breeding programs in the long run. Since its founding, Apenheul has prided itself as a park where primates live in large, natural enclosures in a forest rather than in cages.
“The concept was simple: people enjoy primates most when the primates are enjoying themselves and behaving naturally,” the zoo said. “The freedom given to the animals allowed them to form ideal social groups and to reproduce perfectly.”