Revolutionary DNA-research on hundreds of chimpanzees leads to new Europan breeding guidlines

On Tuesday 20th October 2015, Royal Burgers’ Zoo sterilizes two chimpanzee males following new breeding guidlines of European Endangered species Programme (EEP). (Picture: Burgers’ Zoo)

At the beginning of the 20th century scientist already knew at least four subspecies of chimpanzees exist. Until recently, however, no scientific techniques existed which could exactly determine to which subspecies a certain individual animal belonged. Especially zoo animals in the third or fourth generation could not be determined accurately. With the development of new DNA-techniques and specifically developed scientific tests for chimpanzees, nowadays it is possible to determine accurately to which subspecies a chimpanzee belongs: not only in the wild, but also in zoos. For more than ten years the team of Arnhem zoo biologist and great ape expert Tom de Jongh and his Danish colleagues Frands Carlsen and Christina Hvilsom (Zoo Copenhague) have been analysing DNA-results of more than 750 chimpansees in all zoos which are member of EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria). Based on their extensive labour it has been decided to breed with the Western subspecies of chimpanzee in Europe, which outnumber all other subspecies in European zoos, alongside a modest European breeding programme for the Central subspecies. Based on these compulsory guideliness Royal Burgers’ Zoo sterilizes two chimpanzee males which do not belong for a full hundred percent to the Western subspecies on Tuesday 20th October 2015.

Working on a huge task with great determination

Being vice chairman of the European Endangered species Programme (EEP) for chimpanzees, biologist and great ape expert Tom de Jongh of Royal Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem, The Netherlands, has been working on the ambitious European research project on analyzing DNA-data of more than 750 chimpanzees for more than ten years now. Besides that, also DNA-data have been analysed of hundreds of chimpanzees in zoos which are not a member of EAZA. Together with his Danish colleagues from Zoo Copenhague Frands Carlsen, coordinator of the EEP, and Christina Hvilsom, coordinator of the research on genetics, they have started an extensive research process. First, DNA-samples have been collected in Afrika of all subspecies of chimpanzees. Secondly, scientific tests have been developed and, in a process of years, consistently improved in order to be able to determine chimpanzee subspecies also in the case of zoo animals. Before the start of their research, already was known that many ‘founding fathers’ of the European zoo population had been shipped from Western Africa in the past. In the future De Jongh, Carlsen and Hvilsom aim to extend their research to Northern and Southern America and possibly even to colleagues on the other continents as well.

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