Metabolic adaptation for low energy throughput in orangutans

Herman Pontzer, David A. Raichlen, Robert W. Shumaker, Cara Ocobock, Serge A. Wich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


Energy is the fundamental currency of life - needed for growth, repair, and reproduction - but little is known about the metabolic physiology and evolved energy use strategies of the great apes, our closest evolutionary relatives. Here we report daily energy use in free-living orangutans (Pongo spp.) and test whether observed differences in energy expenditure among orangutans, humans, and other mammals reflect known differences in life history. Using the doubly labeled water method, we measured daily energy expenditure (kCal/d) in orangutans living in a large indoor/outdoor habitat at the Great Ape Trust. Despite activity levels similar to orangutans in the wild, Great Ape Trust orangutans used less energy, relative to body mass, than nearly any eutherian mammal ever measured, including sedentary humans. Such an extremely low rate of energy use has not been observed previously in primates, but is consistent with the slow growth and low rate of reproduction in orangutans, and may be an evolutionary response to severe food shortages in their native Southeast Asian rainforests. These results hold important implications for the management of orangutan populations in captivity and in the wild, and underscore the flexibility and interdependence of physiological, behavioral, and life history strategies in the evolution of apes and humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)14048-14052
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
StatePublished - Aug 10 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Daily energy expenditure
  • Doubly labeled water
  • Energetics
  • Life history

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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