What's in a name? Tracing the origins of orangutan scientific names

August 2, 2016, Taylor & Francis

A team of scientists have undertaken detective work to trace the origin of the first orangutan specimen to be scientifically named Pongo pygmaeus. By tracing the history of the specimen as accurately as they can, the team have established Banjarmasin, in the Indonesian part of Borneo, as the most likely place of origin. Their findings are published in the Journal of Natural History.

Genetic evidence has suggested that there are two species of , the Bornean Pongo pygmaeus, and the Sumatran Pongo abelii, and corroborates evidence from skulls and teeth that there are at least three Bornean orangutan subspecies.

Unfortunately, the scientific names currently used for these subspecies are suspect, as are their presently defined geographic distributions and, given colonial rivalries, it was not even certain that the name Pongo pygmaeus belongs to the Bornean species.

Three Australian and British researchers therefore set out to try to establish the origins of the specimens on which the contending orangutan scientific names are based. The investigation was not straightforward, as the original specimen dates from the 18th century, when records were sporadic, and pirates proved to be a deterrent to early 19th century exploration of north Borneo.

From these findings, the authors have established Banjarmasin, in the Kalimantan area of Borneo, as the most likely place of origin of the orangutan specimen in the British Museum's founding collection, which gave science the name Pongo pygmaeus. The specimen was destroyed in about 1850, but its skull may survive in a Swedish collection. This is good news as it avoids the upheaval of having to transfer the name Pongo pygmaeus to the Sumatran orangutan species.

The researchers discover that the name currently used for the south Bornean subspecies actually belongs to the west Bornean subspecies, recommending for this subspecies one of its senior synonyms they have identified. Regrettably, this may leave the south Bornean nameless. Assigning the correct scientific name is vital, as it forestalls the nomenclatural instability caused if later research reveals that names have been wrongly applied.

Explore further: Reintroduction of genetically distinct orangutan subspecies has led to hybridization in an endangered wild population

More information: Douglas Brandon-Jones et al. The type specimens and type localities of the orangutans, genusLac├ęp├Ęde, 1799 (Primates: Hominidae), Journal of Natural History (2016). DOI: 10.1080/00222933.2016.1190414

Related Stories

Borneo's orangutans are coming down from the trees

July 29, 2013

Orangutans might be the king of the swingers, but primatologists in Borneo have found that the great apes spend a surprising amount of time walking on the ground. The research, published in the American Journal of Primatology ...

Fossil Pongo showing different periodicity of Retzius lines

February 27, 2012

Periodicity of Retzius lines of primates is a key factor in dental development, and provides information on classification, evolution and adaptation of hominoids in different times and areas. Paleoanthropologists from Institute ...

German zoo shoots dead escaped orangutan

September 1, 2015

A German zoo said Tuesday its keepers had shot dead a panicked orangutan after it escaped its enclosure and threatened to run through city streets.

Recommended for you

Discovery of a simple mechanism for color detection

October 15, 2018

Color vision, consisting of ocular color detection, is achieved with complicated neural mechanisms in the eyes. Researchers from Osaka City University in Japan have found color detection with a simple mechanism in the fish ...

How beetle larvae thrive on carrion

October 15, 2018

The burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides buries the cadavers of small animals in soil to use them as a food source for its offspring. However, the carcass and thus the breeding site are highly susceptible to microbial ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.