New York Times - Tuesday, February 28, 1995--"Orangutan Hybrid, Bred to 
Save Species, Now Seen as Pollutant" by Natalie Angier (Washington)  (pp. 
B5, B9) [From Primate-Talk]

Ignore the absurd nickname Junior: this scowling, hulking he-ape, his fur 
like flame and his belly like Buddha's, his face ostentatiously swollen 
with the fatty cheek flaps and throat sac of a fully mature male, is not 
the sort to elicit clucks and kootchie-koos from the human primates who 
watch him through the Plexiglas of his zoo enclosure. As the oldest male 
orangutan at the National Zoo (29 years old in April), and the father of 
five other orangutans here, Junior looks the perfectly feral ambassador 
for his species, the Great Red Ape, a piece of the jungle caged but never 

In fact, Junior, or Atjeh as he is more formally named, is an entirely 
zoo-made creation, a version of orangutan that almost certainly would 
never be found in the forests of Indonesia, the ape's native home. He and 
about 80 other orangutans in captivity around the country are zoo-bred 
crosses between two subspecies of orangutans, those originating in Borneo 
and those from the neighboring island of Sumatra. They are called 
hybrids, or "cocktail orangutans," or simply mutts, and they are history.

Many scientists lately have decided that Sumatran and Bornean orangutans 
are so genetically distinct they may even qualify as separate species. 
They are more genetically different from one another than lions are from 
tigers, or chimpanzees are from the more gracile bonobos, said Dr. 
Stephen J. O'Brien, a molecular geneticist at the National Cancer 
Institute who has studied orangutan DNA.

As a result of the recent molecular work, the Indonesian Government and 
the organization that oversees zoo programs in the United States has 
called a halt to interbreeding Sumatran and Bornean orangutans and to 
allowing the current crop of hybrids to reproduce. Despite the endangered 
status of orangutans in the wild, the cocktails will not be considered a 
genetic reservoir for possibly replenishing wild populations. Atjeh and 
others like him have been vasectomized, tubally ligated or implanted with 
heavy-duty birth control treatments. The hybrids will serve out their 
time in zoos (which can be a long time, for orangutans live up to 60), 
but as sexual beings they are pongo non grata.

Yet while most primatologists agree this decision is best for the future 
of orangutans, some scientists have lately begun to attack the policy as 
an ape version of racism. They say that the desire to preserve the purity 
of the two orangutan subspecies reflects a sentimental view of nature in 
which humans are ever in search of the pristine, the true, the Edenic. 
The critics worry that hybrids sometimes are treated as second-class 
apes, and they point out that on occasion the animals have
been removed from the orangutan displays, as though their presence there 
would compromise the educational mission of zoos to emphasize 
conservation and species integrity.

They criticize the molecular data as incomplete and misleading, and at 
least one geneticist said his new analysis showed the two orangutan 
populations in fact were closer genetically than other researchers had 
concluded. In fact, they attack the general tendency to turn to molecular 
biology for solutions to all of life's quandaries, in conservation work 
as much as in human medicine.

We're experiencing a generalized fad of looking for a genetic fix on 
everything," said Dr. Anne E. Russon of York University in Toronto. "The 
data used to assess genetic differences are not extensive and we can't be 
certain of what the differences mean. There are some suggestions that the 
variation within the subspecies is the same as that between Bornean and 
Sumatran orangutans."

The debate about what to do with hybrid orangutans was thrashed out last 
week at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of 
Science in Atlanta. The implications of the argument extend beyond the 
fate of orangutans. Scientists have argued over whether the remaining red 
wolves, for example, are true wolves, or whether they have been 
intermixed with coyotes for so long that they no longer constitute an 
autonomous species and therefore might not merit the investment of 
conservation dollars to reintroduce them back to their home range in the 

Similarly, a number of farm groups in Wyoming and Idaho have petitioned 
the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from 
the endangered species list because some animals may be wolf-coyote hybrids.

Researchers have questioned whether it is ethical to interbreed the 
highly endangered California condor with the commoner Andean condor, or 
the rare Florida panther with its more abundant cousins in the West, even 
if the genetic shuffling might add vigor to an imperiled population of 

Dr. Terry Maple, director of Zoo Atlanta and a speaker at the orangutan 
meeting, complained that his zoo had recently spent a large sum to 
purchase what zoo officials thought was an endangered Sumatran tiger, 
only to learn later that it might have been, as he put it, "polluted" by 
Bengal or other tiger genes. "If that's the case, then we won't be 
allowed to breed it," he said.

But the discussion about animal breeding and genetics get particularly 
heated whenever primates are involved. Some biologists feel such an 
affinity toward the great apes that they argue that humans and the other 
apes should be reclassified together under a single genus, Homo, to 
emphasize the kinship people share with chimpanzees, gorillas and, more 
distantly, orangutans.

In the eyes of some primatologists, the question of whether humans should 
work to keep the orangutan lines pure is hubristic, nearly as offensive 
as the idea of eugenics. Even among less extreme advocates of primate 
rights, the question remains whether animals that are capable of 
producing viable offspring necessarily should be kept separate at all 
costs. One scientist has jokingly suggested that perhaps the solution is 
to ask the orangutans, who are capable of learning rudimentary sign language.

If asked, orangutans might well answer that it does not matter who they 
mate with, so long as they do not have to spend too much time together. 
Orangutans are the least convivial of all the great apes, with the only 
sustained socializing occurring between a mother and her young offspring.

Mating between males and females is anywhere from audacious to violent. 
Often the females go to great lengths to attract the attention of males, 
displaying their genitals, swinging around on their elongated forearms in 
the showiest possible fashion, or even bonking an obtuse male on the head 
with a branch or fruit. However, a young and inexperienced male may 
sometimes force himself rather brutally on a female, who screams and 
flails in clear indication that this is not her choice. In general, 
though, orangutans remain fairly placid. They are clever and manually 
deft beasts that can learn from humans to row canoes, open locks, or even 
cook pancakes.

About 10,000 orangutans* are thought to survive in the wild, the majority 
on Sumatra. To the Indonesians, the apes are the people, "orang," of the 
forest, "utan." The Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are not always easy 
to tell apart. The greatest differences occur between mature males of the 
subspecies. Bornean males tend to have comparatively larger and floppier 
cheek pads, rounder faces and darker fur, while the Sumatrans have more 
whiskers around the cheeks and chin and curlier, more matted hair over 
all, and their fur generally is a bit redder.

But Melanie R. Bond, a primate scientist at the National Zoo, said that 
the esthetic differences were not absolute, and that individual 
variations among apes sometimes complicated the picture. "The problem is 
that for many years we thought we could tell by physical appearance 
alone," she said. "A certain percentage of the time we ended up right, 
but a certain amount of time we were wrong. That's why there are a lot of 
hybrids here today. We didn't set out to deliberately breed together the 
two subspecies of orangutans."

With the advent of molecular tools, researchers began probing the 
proteins and chromosomes of the apes for clues to their biochemical 
differences. They found that key proteins between the two showed 
significant discrepancies. More striking still, researchers discovered a 
so-called chromosomal inversion. Part of the second chromosome in one 
subspecies or orangutan is flipped relative to the second chromosome in 
the other subspecies, and this positional difference holds for all 
members of one orangutan population or the other.

That sort of gross chromosomal discrepancy, said Dr. O'Brien, is larger 
than anything seen in the various chromosomal profiles of most of the 
great cats. "The Sumatran and Bornean orangutans have as many molecular 
differences as perfectly respectable species do," he said. "I feel we 
should treat them as different species."

Examining the rough outline of orangutan DNA located within the 
mitochondria, tiny cellular structures where the body's energy is 
generated, many researchers have concluded that the two orangutan 
populations diverged at least 20,000 and possibly hundreds of thousands 
of years ago, going their separate ways even before Borneo and Sumatra 
were divided by the South China Sea. But scientists cannot say for sure 
that the populations have stayed utterly reproductively isolated in all 
that time, particularly not since humans have been in the area and 
possibly traded the apes back and forth. Even today, some unknown number 
of wild orangutans are illegally caught, kept as pets for a while and 
then released into the forest, with little concern over the genetic 
integrity of a given orangutan population.

Still, Dr. O'Brien and others say the science indicates it would be as 
unethical at this point to knowingly breed a Sumatran with a Bornean 
orangutan as it would be to cross a snow leopard with a tiger. "A rule of 
thumb in conservation work is, you don't want to tamper with the genetic 
integrity of good populations," Dr. O'Brien said.

But Dr. C. Cam Muir, a geneticist at Simon Frasier University in Burnaby, 
Briitish Columbia, presented to the Atlanta meeting data on orangutan 
genes that contradicts or at least complicates previous molecular 
studies. Dr. Muir gathered DNA samples from wild apes, collecting 
orangutan hair and feces and then isolating the genetic material nested 
within. Whereas previous studies had looked at mitochondrial DNA through 
a fairly blunt method called RFLP analysis, Dr. Muir decided to look at 
the precise chemical sequences of five orangutan genes.

"The advantage of the sequence approach is you get higher resolution," he 
said. Taking various statistical paths to interpreting the data, he 
concluded that the two subspecies sat on the same branch of the 
phylogenetic tree, rather than on two different branches as others had 
insisted. This may sound like a strange argument for a geneticist to 
make, he said, "but I don't think genetics is a legitimate method for 
distinguishing populations."

Dr. Muir's work is unlikely to have much effect on the fate of the 
orangutans now in the nation's zoos. Not only have nearly all the zoos 
agreed to abide by the call to stop breeding hybrids, but at the moment 
they are not breeding even pureblood orangutans, except in rare 
circumstances. The apes take up a lot of zoo space, they are expensive to 
keep and for the near future there is little chance that any will be bred 
for re--introduction into the treetops of their ancestral home.

Dr. Maple admitted that zoos were bowing under the weight of being 
regarded as the "last refuge" for all the world's endangered creatures. 
And Junior's recent vasectomy obviously will not do anything to help 
preserve the remaining forests of Sumatra and Borneo, where his less 
genetically alloyed brethren will swing in joyous solitude.