Male orangutan in Sumatra's wild
Picture: Ellen Meulmann, Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zurich
When large areas of rainforest 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 – and they could be critically endangered for the longer term: After all, geographic isolation can lead to genetic depletion and inbreeding, both of which increase the risk of these small local populations dying out.The study conducted by the anthropologists from the University of Zurich, which is to be published in the Journal of Heredity, affords the first insights into the genetic structure that are useful for the protection of the species and optimistic in this respect. The orangutan population in Sumatra is divided into several subpopulations that are not the result of industrial deforestation, but rather of a natural origin. The population structure was created and preserved over millennia through natural obstacles such as rivers and mountain ranges.
The distinct dominance structure of male Sumatran orangutans thus constitutes a natural mechanism that guarantees the genetic exchange between the various regions of the island over long distances. As Sumatra’s interior is forested up to high altitudes, the young male orangutans can negotiate mountain ranges and bypass large rivers in the source region. Thanks to their marked wanderlust, they also considerably reduce possible negative consequences of the habitat fragmentation caused by industrial deforestation. And this ultimately offers a glimmer of hope for the survival of this critically endangered ape species.Genetic diversity points to large population
Beat Müller | Universität Zürich
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