Multi-year lactation and its consequences in Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii)

Maria A. van Noordwijk, Erik P. Willems, Sri Suci Utami Atmoko, Christopher W. Kuzawa, Carel P. van Schaik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


In most mammals, females pay for reproduction by dramatically increasing net energy intake from conception to mid- or late lactation. To do this, they time their reproductive events in relation to environmental cycles so that periods of peak food availability coincide with peak demand or are used to build energy stores. This timing is not possible in species with slow development in which lactation is prolonged over a multi-year period with fluctuating food availability. Here, mothers are expected to sustain a stable but generally lower level of nutrient transfer. In a sample of over 1,050 complete follow days of eight mother-infant pairs collected over 7 years, we document maternal effort for wild Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) over their average 6. 5-year lactation period. As predicted, maternal feeding time was independent of the age of her growing offspring, indicating a stable sustained "plateau" effort of ≤ 25 % above baseline level, instead of a short peak lactation as seen in seasonal breeders. Infant orangutans started to regularly supplement milk with self-harvested food when they were 1-1. 5 years old, indicating milk intake was insufficient from this age onwards, even though maternal effort did not decrease. We expect the same regulation of sustained maternal effort in other large and large-brained mammals with slow infant development. We also predict that mother-infant conflict over suckling may show another peak at the onset of the milk + solid food phase, in addition to the well-known conflict around the endpoint of lactation (weaning), which is reached after a long and gradual increase in solid food intake by the infant.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)805-814
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2013


  • Great apes
  • Maternal investment
  • Parent-offspring conflict
  • Sustained lactation
  • Weaning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


Dive into the research topics of 'Multi-year lactation and its consequences in Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this