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Orangutans have personal artistic styles

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According to an analysis of hundreds of drawings made by five female orangutans at the Tama Zoological Park in Japan, these primates can create art that reflects their personality and mood.

The five orangutans were provided with drawing materials, and together they created almost 1,500 drawings between 2006 and 2016. 656 works of art were made by a particularly prolific orangutan named Molly, whose creations stood out for their complexity compared to others.

© Pelé et al., Animals/Tama Zoological Park

Individual artistic preferences were seen in the colors used by each orangutan, as well as in the shapes they chose to draw and in the amount of canvas space. For example, Molly’s drawings were less contrasting than those of other animals, as she pressed her crayons more gently against the canvas.

At the same time, Molly’s creations turned out to be more saturated in colors and shapes. They were followed by drawings created by Yuki. Kiki used only one color and pressed hard on the crayon.

The scientists also spotted changes in Molly’s creativity as the seasons changed. In spring, for example, she tended to use purple as her primary color, while green became more prominent in summer and winter. The red color was used for drawings when another female gave birth.

Compared to winter drawings, Molly’s summer creations tended to include more ‘loops,’ which could be a sign of a good mood due to the weather and the presence of more visitors, according to the researchers.

In general, the orangutans filled their canvases with three main motifs, which the authors of the study described as loops, circles and ‘fan patterns.’ Similar drawing styles have been observed in other non-human primates, including chimpanzees, while human children also tend to use these structures in their art.

Thus, drawings made by chimpanzees, human children, and orangutans have a lot in common, the researchers say. This can provide clues about the emergence of drawings in humans.

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