Academic journal article The Science Teacher

To Save Sumatra's Orangutans

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

To Save Sumatra's Orangutans

Article excerpt

The orangutans in Sumatra are in danger of extinction. Anthropologists from the University of Zurich have noted a drastic decrease in the population while studying the genetic makeup and migratory behavior of these animals. Among their findings: The population is divided into several subpopulations defined by geographic origin, and young male orangutans enhance their survival prospects by making lengthy journeys. This finding suggests a strategy that could help save these critically endangered apes.

Orangutans, Asia's only large apes, live mainly in trees. Today, only two species remain: those on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo and those on Sumatra. Only around 6,600 Sumatra orangutans remain.

When large areas of rain forest were cleared in Sumatra to make way for palm-oil plantations, once vast forestlands were reduced to a fraction of their former size, and areas of forest that used to be conjoined became isolated from each other. Today, only a few dozen orangutans live in many of these forest areas. Geographic isolation can lead to genetic depletion and inbreeding, both of which threaten survival.

The study conducted by University of Zurich anthropologists, to be published in the Journal of Heredity, offers insights into the animals' genetic structure that may help save the species. For the species to survive, it is essential for a genetic exchange to take place between the genetically differentiated subpopulations. The authors discovered several orangutans that were born in one region but whose fathers exhibited a genetic profile from a different part of the island. This indicated that young male orangutans cover large distances to settle far away from the place where they were born. …

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