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Dane County's Henry Vilas Zoo Announces Participation in Significant Orangutan Research Publication

September 02, 2015
Stephanie Miller, 608-267-8823
County Executive

Dane County’s Henry Vilas Zoo announced today that a significant new orangutan research publication by Dr Graham L Banes, a Research Associate at Henry Vilas Zoo, was published in the journal, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.  Dane County's Henry Vilas Zoo funded a portion of the research that led to the paper.

“We are very proud of Graham’s work to further our understanding of orangutans and their behavior,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.  “This work demonstrates Henry Vilas Zoo's significant commitment towards orangutan conservation and to improving our understanding of these endangered species.” 

Graham’s research explored why some male orangutans develop large 'cheek pads' on their faces.  It was assumed that these make them more attractive to females, and so they have more offspring -- while males without cheek pads go without.  Over eight years, Graham and his team tested this hypothesis at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park, collecting faecal samples from wild orang-utans to extract DNA for paternity testing. They hoped to see if the dominant, cheek-padded male orangutan -- Kusasi -- had fathered more offspring during his period of dominance than any other male.

As faecal samples from wild orangutans are difficult to collect, they couldn't afford to waste a single drop of their DNA. They developed the procedures for genetic analysis using faecal samples from Datu and Kawan, two of the orangutans at Dane County's Henry Vilas Zoo, who provided them with an unlimited supply of faeces on which to experiment.  Once they perfected the technique, they performed the analyses on the samples from the wild orangutans.

Their hypothesis was correct:  Kusasi fathered more offspring than any other male during his dominant period. Consequently, the team concluded that dominant male orangutans with cheek pads have more offspring than their socially subordinate, non-cheek-padded male rivals. The orangutans at Henry Vilas Zoo therefore helped us to learn more about their cousins in the wild, demystifying their social structure. The paper has already been featured in The Washington Post, in Discovery News, and in The Daily Mail in the UK.

Henry Vilas Zoo supported this study by providing samples, and the Zoo Society also raised funds to help support the analyses.  However, the zoo is now going one step further, having appointed Dr Banes as a Research Associate in 2013, and having worked with him to establish a molecular genetics laboratory at the zoo's Animal Health Centre.  Henry Vilas Zoo is now the American headquarters of The Orangutan Conservation Genetics Project, a global effort to study the genetics of orangutans in zoos and rehabilitation centres worldwide, to further their conservation.  Dr Banes is also adjunct faculty in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We couldn’t be more excited to have been able to participate in and support these findings of  Graham’s long term study,” concluded Ronda Schwetz, Zoo Director.  “This is a unique partnership that shows Dane County’s Henry Vilas Zoo's commitment to being a conservation organization and sharing with our community AZA accredited zoos efforts towards excellence in animal welfare for our individual animals as well as those in the wild.”

Recent articles on the study:

Washington Post:

Discovery News:

The Daily Mail:

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