Chimpanzee subspecies share genetic link despite past isolation events, study finds

The way we understand and differentiate species is primarily through genotypic and phenotypic variation, but also location. However, a recent study reveals that despite isolation events in the past, there is a genetic link between several chimpanzee subspecies. It is considered one of the most comprehensive research of its kind, where over 5,000 faecal samples from 55 sites in 18 countries across the chimpanzee’s range over 8 years were collected.

The teams involved were The Cultured Chimpanzee (PanAf) from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) as well as individual international researchers.

It is part of the Pan-African program. Mimi Arandjelovic, co-director of PanAf and lead author of the study, called the collection of samples an extremely daunting task.

“We used rapidly evolving genetic markers that reflect the species’ recent population history and, in combination with the dense sampling of their entire range, we show that chimpanzee subspecies have been connected, or, more likely, reconnected, for long periods during the most recent peak expansion of African forests,” explained Jack Lester, first author of the study.

Paolo Gratton, co-author of the study suggests that during ice ages, chimpanzees stayed in forest refuges. This likely caused the isolation of various populations that we now recognize as “subspecies”.

Hjalmar Kuehl, co-director of PanAf, also noted that “the great behavioral diversity observed” in these animals is “not due to local genetic adaptation but that they rely on behavioral flexibility, much like humans, to respond to changes in their environment.”

The team was “disheartened” to see that they could not find chimpanzees in places that suggest healthy populations in previous decades, an attribution to their declining population and reduced diversity.

Christophe Boesch, co-director of PanAf and director of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, noted that all efforts should be focused on restoring dispersal corridors for the animals and creating transnational protected areas.

The animal is threatened due to deforestation and habitat destruction, disease, the pet trade and even the bushmeat trade. If fragmentation and isolation continues, there may be a serious threat to the survival of the species as a whole.

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