Call of the Wild: USC Grad Student Embarks on 18-Month Study of Orangutan Vocalizations

April 1, 2014

Contact: Robert Perkins at (213) 740-9226 or

Tomorrow a USC graduate student 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 at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, will spend nine months each at Gunung Leuser National Park in Northern Sumatra and Kutai National Park in East Borneo.

His work will range from cutting-edge, 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 adventures will be posted periodically online at:

“Orangutans are hugely understudied and easily the most endangered of the great apes,” said Askew. “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 towards 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.

Again, Askew also plans to take advantage of modern technology, utilizing a digital camera with twin lasers rigged up to gauge male body size. In addition, Askew 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 Jane Goodall Research Institute, and Askew’s advisor.

This is far from 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. Orangutans highly dispersed, rarely encountering 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.” Askew said.

Askew’s flight from LA departs on April 1.

(Photo courtesy of James Askew)