Scientists have declared this genetic variant of orangutan a separate species, making it the first new great ape species in a century. I don’t get toooooo excited about primates, but this is an intriguing example of the ways in which phylogenetics can change the way we perceive animals and conservation. I heard a talk recently where the speaker said “anything with more than 2.5% difference in the genetic markers is a different species” and proceeded to show how two populations of ants were 4% different and therefore different species. (Who gets to decide 2.5% is a mystery to me, but I felt asking that question would come across as aggressive, so I kept my silence.)
This is interesting to me, because often when we separate something that was considered one species, one of the populations automatically becomes “endangered”. This all harkens back to the complexity of the species concept, which I’ve talked about in great length, although not in some time.
Similarly, this new orangutan species is in danger of extinction because it is represented by a small population of genetic variants. The next question is a conservation question…do we shift resources to save this new and suddenly endangered species? Or do we continue our conservation efforts as before considering these two separate species as one? As Hugh Possingham would say, we need to allocate limited conservation funds where they can be most effective.
You may have an opinion on the morality of prioritizing species conservation, but the reality is that conservation is underfunded and spread too thin to conserve everything.
Deep thoughts for a Friday morning!
I will be traveling for the next while, so in the meantime write me a ten page essay on why conservation of genetic variants is important (or not important). Times New Roman, size 12 font, double spaced and don’t mess with the margins.