A female orangutan sits with her infant. Credit: HUTAN Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project

ANN ARBOR — Orangutans have long been viewed as an ecologically sensitive species that can thrive only in pristine forests. But a new synthesis of existing evidence has shown that orangutans can, and do, inhabit in areas impacted by humans, and that may mean only good things for the survival of the species.

Orangutans are a critically endangered, formally protected species. Researchers estimate their current population is less than 1 percent of what it was before humans began encroaching on their habitat 70,000 years ago. Dating back to the Pleistocene, they lived in populations ranging from the islands of Sumatra and Borneo all the way to China and Southeast Asia. But beginning 20,000 years ago, their range shrank to just Sumatra and Borneo.

The review published June 27 in the journal Science Advances combines the fields of paleontology, ecology, conservation, animal behavior, and genetics to examine how orangutan populations have been impacted by humans over the last 100,000 years.

“There’s really quite a long history of humans and orangutans co-existing,” said Andrew Marshall, co-author of the paper and a biological anthropologist at the University of Michigan. “Understanding this not only sheds light on the evolutionary history of orangutans, but also gives us a sense of how to preserve them in the face of current changes in global climate and land use.”


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