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 conquered. 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 Southeast. 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 animals. 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.