An exploration of our Earth's ever-captivating fauna through musings on the bizarre side of Zoology, Cryptozoology, Paleontology, and Paleoanthropology

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

An Interview With Primatologist Michael Reid

Primatologist Michael Reid

I had been in contact with Mr. Reid through my Twitter account, and after sharing information and knowledge, I hoped to do an interview with him. So here it is, and I think it looks great! This interview consists of interesting information about Mr. Reid's work and experiences, and also includes some information on a unique and interesting new species of fossil orangutan! I truly think that Mr. Reid will help Primatology excell in the future, and I am very grateful of his agreement to do an interview. My thanks go out to him, and I hope to contact him more for this website in the future. Mr. Reid's website is here:(

1. Hello Mr. Reid, can you please tell us a little about yourself and about the work that you have done in the field of primatology/zoology?
   Hi Jay, Thank you for inviting me to do this interview for your blog. I am a primatologist and have been working in the field since 2002. I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Much of my work has focused on the presence of infectious organisms in orangutans housed at orangutan orphanages/sanctuaries on the island of Borneo. I have also been involved in projects looking at lead contamination in Singapore Macaques and West Nile Virus in North American captive primates.

2. What is your main area (as in your main topic or field) of study?
   My current research focus is on the evolution of infectious organisms within orangutans and what this can tell us about orangutan evolution, infectious agent evolution, conservation risks from disease and disease spread.

3. Where have you traveled and what kind of work have you done there?
   I have been lucky to travel a lot for my career and studies. I have spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, especially in the Central Indonesian Borneo province of Kalimantan Tengah. This is where I was lucky enough to work with world renowned orangutan expert Prof. Dr. Birute Galdikas. I had many jobs during my field time including helping collect orangutan blood during health checks and checking the blood for malaria parasites. I have also helped out designing and building cage enrichment features, been a surrogate father to young orangutans and cleaning cages.
I have also spent time in South Africa learning how to anesthetize and safely transport large wild mammals. This was a great experience getting to see lots of African wildlife including lions and elephants.

4. What was the most bizarre experience with animals that you have had?
   The most bizarre experience for me was being in the Bornean jungle swamp and just sitting on a log at the edge of a swamp pool. All of a sudden a large animal comes to the surface of the pool and grabs some critter that had landed on top of the water. It scared the heck out of me because I didn't see where the creature came from or what it was. In retrospect I think it was an Arowana or dragon fish which is a highly prized fish for home aquariums. So much so that it is now an endangered species. A second incident would have to be the one in South Africa when I was visiting a vulture sanctuary. I was trying to feed an old injured resident vulture that could not be re-released back to the wild because of its injuries when all of a sudden I felt something heavy and sharp on my shoulders. A large juvenile vulture had landed on my back.
Arowana fish
5. You were the main primate consultant for the 2011 film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", how did you help with this movie?
      I was mostly involved with the film prior to shooting. Most of my consulting involved answering questions about how chimpanzees would behave in certain given situations, what their general behaviours are like and just talking about primates and their lives. My role was minor but they did an amazing job on that film and I am proud to have been even a small part of it.

6. The purpose of this interview was to ask you about the recent discovery of a large fossil orangutan species. Can you please explain this fossil find?
You had explained that the fossil orangutan was very large, as it was a female larger than a modern male. Can you please give us the size estimate for this ape and explain how it compares to other apes?
   In a 2001 paper Authors Anne-Marie Bacon and Vu The Long describe their findings on the 1997 discovery of a full female orangutan skeleton as well as a partial skeleton of a juvenile orangutan found in a breccia cave in Vietnam. It was an important fossil find in many ways but especially in its completeness. Finding almost complete fossils of anything is rare and much of the previous work on fossil orangutans was based on teeth and jaw fragments. The complete female was unique in many ways such as a huge cranium and teeth (here larger than an modern adult male orangutan) yet a small body. Also the relative length of its arm and leg bones are different from modern orangutans and more similar to modern gibbons. No actual size estimate is given for this fossil other than a really large cranium and gracile post-cranial skeleton.

7. Can you please explain the ecology that is speculated for this fossil ape? (When and where did this ape live? What is the speculated diet?)
   This orangutan probably lived at a time when Vietnam would have been even warmer and wetter than today. Based on the relative arm and leg lengths it is likely this orangutan was arboreal and most likely a fruit eater.

8. Can you please share with us any links to scientific journal entries on this fossil orangutan discovery?
   The original paper by Bacon and Long, 2001
The first discovery of a complete skeleton of a fossil orang-utan in a cave of the Hoa
Binh Province, Vietnam
Here we provide a description of the first complete adult fossil orang-utan skeleton from the Asian mainland. This specimen, and remains of a juvenile orang, were collected in a late Pleistocene cavern in the Hoa Binh Province of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The results confirm the suggestions by Hooijer (1948) Zool. Meded. Leiden 29, 175–301 and later by Schwartz et al. (1995) Anthrop. Pap. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 76, 1–24, that ancient orang-utans had bigger teeth than those of modern Pongo pygmaeus (P. p. pygmaeus and P. p. abelii),
while the dental morphology is similar. Body proportions of the adult individual of Hoa Binh show a large skull with very large teeth but proportionally a small body. This individual is also singular in having high intermembral and brachial indices, in comparison with those of
modern subspecies.
Journal of Human Evolution (2001) 41, 227–241
Available online at on

Here is our supplementary work on this specimen.

Supplement: Program and Abstracts of the 30th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Primatologists, June 20-23, 2007 Guest Editor: Matthew F.S.X. Novak
June 2007 Volume 69, Issue S1 Pages 1–138

M. J. Reid1 and M. A. Schillaci1,2
1Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, 100 St. George St., Toronto,
ON, M5S 3G3, Canada, 2Department of Social Sciences, University of Toronto

Orangutans (Pongo sp.) are well known in the fossil record with a number of
subspecies currently recognized. With the recent elevation of the Bornean and
Sumatran orangutan subspecies into distinct species it has become important to reevaluate
orangutan fossil materials. In this paper, we used principal components
analysis (PCA) and cluster analysis to examine phenotypic relationships among
extant and fossil hominoids from Asia. Our study relied on standard dental
measurement data gathered from the available literature. Male and female (if sex
differentiation was available) mean mesio-distal and bucco-lingual measurements
for Pongo pymaeus, P. abelii, P. p. paleosumatrensis and P. p. weidenreichi were
included in the analysis, as were data on an unnamed species from Vietnam.
Closely-related taxa such as Lufengpithecus sp. and Ankarapithecus meteai were
used as primitive outgroups. The distribution of principal component scores
generated by our analysis indicated that there are clear differences in size and
shape among closely-related taxa, as well as more generally between fossil and
extant hominoids. Interestingly, the Vietnamese fossil Pongo sp. aligned closely
with the Chinese hominoids from Yuanmou and Lufeng. We believe that the
observed differences do not solely describe dietary differences, but also probably
reflect phylogenetic relationships.

Program of the Thirty-Fourth Meeting of The American Society of Primatologists
Volume 73, Issue S1, August 2011, Pages: 1–120,
Article first published online : 26 JUL 2011, DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20978

M. J. Reid1,2, M. A. Schillaci1 and D. R. Begun2
1Department of Social Sciences, University of Toronto Scarborough, Toronto, ON, M1C 1A4, Canada, 2Department of
Anthropology, University of Toronto

A large number of Pleistocene fossil orangutan specimens are known, consisting almost exclusively of isolated teeth. In 2001, Bacon and Long published the most complete fossil orangutan (Pongo sp.) ever found and compared it to both extant and fossil orangutans using univariate statistics. We further examine the dentition of the specimen and compare it to its extant and fossil relatives using multivariate statistics. Twelve mesio-distal and bucco-lingual
dimensions of the post-canine dentition of 12 taxa were analyzed using a multivariate statistical approach. Initially, a principal components analysis (PCA) of a covariance matrix using the 12 dental dimensions was conducted. Using the components describing variation in shape (PC2-PC5) pair-wise phenetic distances among taxa were calculated. Dendrograms from UPGMA clustering were created to visually represent the phenetic relationships of these taxa.
Our analysis of the principal components describing variation in shape (PC2-PC5) show two groupings. The first comprises Miocene fossil taxa while the other comprises extant and fossil members of the genus Pongo with the Miocene ape Sivapithecus parvada being an outlier to both groupings. Our analysis of the specimen from Vietnam indicates that dentally it is not more like fossil orangutans than extant orangutans, contra Bacon and Long (2001). We conclude that this fossil specimen is dentally more similar to members of the genus Pongo rather than to Miocene fossil taxa.

9. Have you eliminated the possibility of megadontia playing in on the speculated size for this fossil ape?
We have not been able to rule out megadontia as being the cause of the large cranium and teeth in this and other fossil orangutans. What we can say though based on our own statistical work is that this fossil retains almost the same tooth shape as the teeth of modern orangutans. Without finding more fossil orangutan post-crania it may not be possible to answer the question of why these orangutans had such big crania and relatively small bodies.

10. What are your thoughts on the giant orangutan reported by John MacKinnon and others? Can you explain what happened in this encounter?
   Hahahah. Jay you are really testing my memory here. It has been a long time since I read MacKinnon's "In Search of the Red Ape". I believe he has a close encounter with a very large male orangutan. Larger than many he had seen before. He estimates it to be somewhere close to 300 lbs. Well my opinion is that this is well within the range for modern Bornean orangutans. I have seen some very large males myself that I would estimate to probably be in the 250 lbs.+ range. I think as research continues we will find that certain habitats and subspecies produce larger orangutans.
Size comparison of reported "Giant Orangurans" by Darren Naish

11. As I cannot resist asking, what is your opinion on mystery primate reports (Sasquatch, Yeti, Orang-Pendek, ex.)? Do you think that there are still large primate species to be discovered? And also, if relic hominoids exist, what species do you think would be most likely to still survive and stay hidden?
   One of my early mentors told me why not believe. His words were along the lines of.... "If you believe and they don't find it they can never prove you wrong, but if they do find it you look like a genius". I would love to believe that mystery primates exist. As a scientist I remain skeptical until better evidence surfaces. I was lucky enough to meet some of the pioneers of Sasquatch research such as Rene Dahinden and Dr. Grover Krantz and I appreciate their passion for finding it. It would be great to think that relic primates exist and that some even made it to North America. It would re-write our current knowledge of great ape evolution.
Based on what I have read and know there would have to be a number of species represented by different creatures such as Sasquatch and Orang-Pendek (literal translation is "short-person). Based on descriptions by eye witnesses Gigantopithecus seems like a good candidate for Sasquatch while Orang-Pendek may be a relic species such as Homo floresiensis.
Michael Reid is open minded about the possibility of relict hominoids.
His best bets are shown here (Gigantopithecus and Homo Floresiensis).