BABY orangutans at Chester Zoo are literally getting their teeth into a project to help their counterparts in the wild.
Keepers are gathering information on the emergence of teeth in the tiny creatures, which they hope will allow vets in Borneo and Sumatra to work out when orphaned orangutans were born.
Knowing the age of an animal is crucial for its rehabilitation and setting a date for its release back into the wild.
Two babies at Chester are currently being looked at – with keepers encouraging them to bear their gnashers by smearing window panes with honey for them to lick off.
Chester Zoo vet Steve Unwin, who leads the Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group (OVAG), said: “An orangutan is reliant on its mum for the first eight years of its life.
But it’s very, very difficult indeed to tell the ages of young orangutans.
“So, if a rehabilitated youngster is thought to be eight-years-old but is actually only five, this can potentially affect its chances of survival when it’s reintroduced into the forest. That’s where dental emergence studies on zoo-based orangutans, of which we of course know the dates of birth, could be highly relevant for improved age assignment of confiscated orphans in Indonesia and Malaysia.
“This is an excellent example of how zoos, and captive populations of species, can aid conservation efforts in the wild.”
Keepers at the zoo are recording when first teeth start to appear before they later wobble and fall out.
Primate keeper Kate Brice said: “Whereas most people don’t tend to look forward to a trip to the dentist, our orangutans seem to really like having their teeth checked.
That’s because to encourage them to open nice and wide we often use honey which we smear on a surface for them to lick off.
“As soon as they come over we then have to take a photograph of the insides of their mouths as quick as we can, as before you know it the honey is gone. Currently we’re monitoring baby tooth timings for our two young Sumatran orangutans – Tripa and Tuti – who are both just over one-year-old. We first saw signs of teeth when they reached five months.
“We know orangutans have 20 baby teeth and 32 permanent adult teeth but what we need answers to in particular is whether or not timings relating to the development of permanent incisors, canines and premolars is different in males and females and between Sumatran and Bornean species of orangutans.”
Felcity Oram, programme development advisor, said: “Better understanding of basic life history is important in order to ensure the continued viability of orangutans in the wild, especially as they increasingly live in human-transformed landscapes.”
l IN OCTOBER, Chester Zoo is launching a campaign to help protect orangutans in the wild. Go Orange for Orangutans will urge schools, families, businesses and individuals to do their bit to save the critically endangered animals.