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Welcome to the Jungle

Human and evolutionary biology Ph.D. candidate James Askew follows the call of the wild to Southeast Asia to study orangutans.

USC Dornsife Ph.D. candidate James Askew in the field. He uses wireless microphone networks and drones to record male orangutan calls and listens to them while crouching under trees. Photo courtesy of James Askew.
USC Dornsife Ph.D. candidate James Askew in the field. He uses wireless microphone networks and drones to record male orangutan calls and listens to them while crouching under trees. Photo courtesy of James Askew.

A USC Dornsife graduate student today embarks on an 18-month expedition to study orangutans in Southeast Asia, inviting colleagues and classmates to follow along via his blog on the Scientific American website.

James Askew, Ph.D. candidate in human and evolutionary biology, will spend nine months each at Gunung Leuser National Park in Northern Sumatra and Kutai National Park in East Borneo.

Askew’s work will range from high-tech — using wireless microphone networks and drones to record male calls — to incredibly low-tech — standing under trees with plastic tarps to catch orangutan urine for sampling.

His adventure will be posted periodically online at the “Expeditions” blog.

“Orangutans are hugely understudied and easily the most endangered of the great apes,” Askew said. “By conducting research in Indonesia, I can help publicize their plight, increase capacity-building by employing field assistants or working with local universities and even work toward direct conservation efforts by collaborating with other researchers in the field.”

Askew’s research focuses on deciphering the role of male calls in social structures and reproductive strategies of orangutans on the two islands. He plans to track both males and females simultaneously — recording calls, behavior and taking urine samples for sex hormones.

Askew also plans to take advantage of modern technology, using a digital camera with twin lasers rigged up to gauge male body size. In addition, he and his team will use speakers to play male calls at female orangutans and monitor their behavior in response. The calls can last for four minutes at around 100 decibels — roughly as loud as a chainsaw — and the sound can be heard as much as a mile away.

“Orangutans are among the most endangered apes in the world today, and much of their lives remain unknown. James Askew’s innovative study will uncover new information about how their calls play a role in their social lives,” said Craig Stanford, co-director of the USC Dornsife’s Jane Goodall Research Center and Askew’s adviser.

This is not Askew’s first time in the field. He discovered a deep interest in primatology while backpacking through Central Africa on a detour to view mountain gorillas. Afterward, he spent four months in Indonesia — “waist deep in swamp water trying to find large male orangutans in order to record their vocalizations,” he said.

Still, the trip is a long one, even by the standards of his field. Askew, whose family lives in England and girlfriend lives in Los Angeles, will be sequestered with his research team for months on end, spending days tramping around the jungle and nights processing samples.

“My overall aim is to produce a more nuanced model for orangutan social and reproductive relationships,” he said. “Orangutans rarely encounter one another in dense jungle, yet are very cognitively able and demonstrate relationships that appear to be based on previous encounters. So interpreting what’s encoded in long-distance calls and how females are using this information will play a pivotal role in our understanding of their social structure and reproductive relationships.”