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Endangered Orangutan Breeding Has Led to a Unique Form of Hybridization

First Posted: Feb 26, 2016 07:45 AM EST

It turns out that being endangered may have led to a unique form of hybridization in orangutans. Scientists have found that in sanctuaries, orangutans have interbred and have formed individuals with a unique cocktail of genes.

When researchers began orangutan rehabilitation efforts at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Putting National Park, they didn't realize that their efforts would result in the hybridization of orangutans. Over 14 years, the researchers released 90 orphaned and displaced apes into the surrounding wild population; at the time of their release, the researchers believed that orangutans were all a single species.

Then, using genetic analysis, scientists decided to look at the minimum extent to which they had accidentally released non-native subspecies into the National Park. They found at least two orangutans that were subspecies, and at least 22 hybridized descendants.

This result, though, isn't all bad. Inter-breeding animals from two genetically distinct populations can result in something called "hybrid vigor;" offspring reap the benefits of their parents' individual qualities. This could explain how one of the non-native females founded the biggest family of any female reintroduced at Camp Leakey.

The researchers are now advocating genetic testing prior to all reintroductions of displaced animals. This could potentially help orangutans in sanctuaries, and allow researchers to better track distinct genetic populations of these apes.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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