Beyond Dimorphism: Body Size Variation Among Adult Orangutans Is Not Dichotomous by Sex

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Integrative and Comparative Biology


Synopsis Among extant great apes, orangutans are considered the most sexually dimorphic in body size. However, the expression of sexual dimorphism in orangutans is more complex than simply males being larger than females. At sexualmaturity, some male orangutans develop cheek pads (flanges), while other males remain unflanged even after becoming reproductively capable. Sometimes flange development is delayed in otherwise sexually mature males for a few years. In other cases, flange development is delayed for many years or decades, with some males even spending their entire lifespan as unflanged adults. Thus, unflanged males of various chronological ages can be mistakenly identified as “subadults.” Unflanged adult males are typically described as “female-sized,” but this may simply reflect the fact that unflanged male body size has only ever been measured in peri-pubescent individuals. In this study, we measured the skeletons of 111 wild adult orangutans (Pongo spp.), including 20 unflanged males, 45 flanged males, and 46 females, resulting in the largest skeletal sample of unflanged males yet studied. We assessed long bone lengths (as a proxy for stature) for all 111 individuals and recorded weights-at-death, femoral head diameters, bi-iliac breadths, and long bone cross-sectional areas (CSA) (as proxies for mass) for 27 of these individuals, including seven flangedmales, three adult confirmed-unflanged males, and three young adult likely-unflangedmales. ANOVA and Kruskal-Wallis tests with Tukey and Dunn post-hoc pairwise comparisons, respectively, showed that body sizes for young adult unflanged males are similar to those of the adult females in the sample (all P ≥ 0.09 except bi-iliac breadth), whereas body sizes for adult unflanged males ranged between those of adult flanged males and adult females for several measurements (all P < 0.001). Thus, sexually mature male orangutans exhibit body sizes that range from the female end of the spectrum to the flanged male end of the spectrum. These results exemplify that the term “sexual dimorphism” fails to capture the full range of variation in adult orangutan body size. By including adult unflanged males in analyses of body size and other aspects of morphology, not as aberrations but as an expected part of orangutan variation, we may begin to shift the way that we think about features typically considered dichotomous according to biological sex.

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National Science Foundation



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