I’m the token dissenter on orangutans for the BBC

A woman at the Beeb contacted me this morning asking me about the description of the new “species” of orangutan from Sumatra. As I wrote at the link, calling this isolated population a new “species” is a purely subjective decision, as is separating the Bornean from the Sumatran orangutan (the new species, the Tapanuli orang, is actually more closely related to the Bornean “species” than to the Sumatran “species”).

I came across your blog article about the new orangutan species, and would be interested in adding a quote from you into the website news article we are putting together for the BBC Wildlife Magazine website.

If you are interested, could summarise why you disagree with this taxonomic decision in 50-60 words?

Well, good for them to try to get balance. But in 50-so words? Oy!

You can find their article by clicking on the screenshot below:

My statement was actually 82 words long:

However not all scientists agree with the new classification. Professor Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago says, “Two populations belong to different species if, when they encounter each other in nature, they do not produce fertile offspring. Since the Tapanuli orangs don’t currently encounter the north Sumatran population, their species status becomes a pure judgment call.”

“They did produce fertile hybrids up to 20,000 years ago, after which the populations became geographically separated. A subjective criterion based on arbitrary differences in appearance and genes means almost any isolated population could be called a new species, including populations of humans!”

If you’re going to take issue with what I said, please first read Chapter 1 and the Appendix of Speciation by Coyne and Orr (Sinauer, 2004); I wrote both of these sections. Pay particular attention to what I say in Chapter 1 about what the BSC is meant to be used for: what “problem” it was designed to address.


  1. Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    When do we get to read the popular-level version of “Speciation”?

    • Christopher
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Or perhaps Prof. or other readers could make a suggested reading list for those of us who are not quite ready for that professional level book?

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 7, 2017 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      Cliff Notes? 😀

  2. GBJames
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink


  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    But in 50-so words? Oy!

    Whaddya mean? Hollywood makes multi-million dollar deals all the time based on the “elevator pitch” of “25 words or less [sic].”

  4. Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    The press would prefer that determining species was just a matter of reading the DNA “bar code” of each individual and seeing if they match.

    • Frank
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      And there are many examples where different geographic populations have diverged to some extent but their inter-fertility is partial or reduced (population A interbreeds with B, B interbreeds with C, but A and C don’t). In these cases, there appears to be NO simple answer to whether the set of populations comprises one species or two. And in some cases it appears that we are catching the speciation process in progress. We get so hung up on the Latin binomials (and a kind of typological thinking that harks back to creationism), that we end up with a case like these orangs where there is probably excessive splitting.

  5. Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Aren’t skunks a stinky form of “black and white kitty”?

    • Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      I recommend that all of you, including Dr. Coyne, do not look up “skunk in the woodpile” with Google because you probably won’t like what you read.

      • Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        On second thought, maybe Dr. Coyne should look up the expression because he’s also used it several times in the past.

        Just a heads up.

      • Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        Oh sweet Jesus; I had no idea. I’ll change the title immediately. OY!!!!!!

        • Posted November 6, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

          Whew! Nick of time, thanks to the good “Dr. Athe”

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 6, 2017 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

            I’d never heard that expression “skunk in the woodpile”, the one I always heard was “n

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted November 6, 2017 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

              … hello …hello line seems to have gone dead


              • Richard
                Posted November 7, 2017 at 3:35 am | Permalink

                The Thought Police have your address and are on their way…

    • Frank Bath
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Skunks are a different species from cats altogether, by far.

      • Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. We live in an area quite frequently redolent of skunks and we jokingly call them “black and white kitties”. I guess not many others do that.

        And, by the way, if those proposing the new Orang species didn’t test for their ability to procreate with other Orang “species” to produce fertile offspring, why not?

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        But they can be regarded here as honorary cats. Along with foxes and owls.

    • Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Pepe Le Pew seemed to think so.

  6. Craw
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Pithy and pointed.

  7. Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink


  8. TJR
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    That last sentence of Jerry’s is pretty much what I always think when “new species” are claimed.

  9. Posted November 6, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I thought the sterile mating aspect had been revised and that members of closely related species could mate and have viable offspring. (Can’t always believe what you read, but …)

    • Paul Matthews
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      I’m a birder and there are definitely lots of examples of individuals of one population of birds, considered a species, hybridizing with individuals of another population of birds, considered a different species. My understanding is that most of these hybrids are fertile. What’s important, apparently, is that the individuals of a species show a distinct preference for breeding with others of the species, rather than individuals of another species, although under certain circumstances interbreeding may occur (and produce fertile offspring). Some species pairs of birds, though, seem to interbreed extensively or even freely (no preference) in the area where they overlap. An example is Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) and Western Gull (Larus occidentalis). I don’t understand why these two are still considered separate species.

  10. Kevin
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the BBC suffers from skunks. Europeans confuse them with polecats and pine martins.

    The Italian for skunk, as in Pepe le Pew, who, by the accent, I presume must have been from Louisiana and not actually French (if cartoon characters can actually have a nationality) is puzzola (stinker) and means also the polecat (Mustela putorius).

    It was also thought that skunks were mustelids too, though that has been revised apparently. Two species divided by a common odour.

    Ah taxonomy, speciation.

    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      The correct italian word for skunk is actually moffetta. But you are right that most italian speakers would say, incorrectly, puzzola. To a zoologist, however, puzzola is Mustela putorius. My guess is that the error comes from bad translation of US movies a few decades ago.

      • Pierluigi Ballabeni
        Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        My experience suggests that that most italian speakers know the existence of skunks but ignore that of M. putorius. They have seen the first in American movies but they have never heard of the second.

        • Kevin
          Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

          There was a fashion for ferrets in Milan about twenty years ago. You could see people with them on a lead. A friend of mine had one in the house as a pet for children.
          As I understand, the ferret is effectively a selected sub-species, since it interbreeds with the wild polecat and has very few genetic differences. The domestic forms are often with paler markings and sometimes albino. There is the famous painting by Leonardo, which is thought to be a ferret and not an ermine (winter stoat).

          • Pierluigi Ballabeni
            Posted November 7, 2017 at 2:34 am | Permalink

            You are right, I forgot about the ferret. But I would not be surprised if most italian speakers who know about ferrets ignored the existance of wild polecats.
            What you say about Leonardo’s painting makes sense because (1) the painted animal is way too big for a stoat and (2) a stoat would badly bite you if you tried to hold it in your hands.

      • Kevin
        Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        Living in Italy, I only ever heard puzzola. Moffetta I only saw an hour ago when checking in the dictionary. Polecats and ferrets are traditional pets in the working class (miners and the like) in the UK. Its well known that they have a smell and are often operated on for this reason if you want to keep them in the house. They are quite charming.

  11. Kevin
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    It seems that skunks actually cause trouble in wood piles especially for dogs.

    There seem to be several interpretations of the expression “skunk in the wood pile” one meaning what Jerry was intending: a contrary argument that goes against one which is otherwise broadly accepted.
    (“Something a bit fishy about that opinion”)

    Another seems to be fairly racist: a skunk being black and white coming to mean “racial contamination” in the family history.

    However since we are discussing the speciation (or race?) of orangutans, the phrase could actually be considered fairly apt albeit unintentional.

  12. Mark Reaume
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    “Two populations belong to different species if, when they encounter each other in nature, they do not produce fertile offspring…”

    Is the ‘in nature’ part a requirement? Does this just mean without genetic engineering or something like that?

    • Craw
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      No. That covers behavioral factors. So if they could, should they mate, produce a fertile offspring, but they actually do not mate when they encounter each other in the wild (in nature), then they are distinct species. This makes perfect sense if you think it through.

      • Posted November 6, 2017 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        The “in nature” part is a very important qualification. Many orchid species are interfertile, even when they belong to different genera. They use different pollinators, though, so they do not interbreed in nature. We can take a toothpick and cross-pollinate them, making spectacular hybrids such as the ones sold in stores around the world.

        • loren russell
          Posted November 7, 2017 at 12:21 am | Permalink

          It’s not unusual to find interspecific — or even intergeneric — orchid hybrids in nature, I’ve seen them among the spectacularly diverse alpine pastures and Mediterranean waysides in Europe]. [North America and particularly western North America is pretty meager by comparison.

          A horticulturalist can easily make these hybrids, back cross to either parent or to a third species, etc. So the hybrids are viable. But likely less sexy than either parent, and less likely to transfer or receive pollinia.

  13. Beau Quilter
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Is it possible to tell whether the Tapanuli, the Bornean, and the Sumatran orangs could interbreed and produce fertile offspring just based on their DNA?

    • johnw
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      Sort of I think. If you aligned whole genome sequence from all three you could detect the level of divergence between (which I think would probably be very small at least for the pair that mixed up till 20K years ago) and then compare to other sibling or subspecies pairs that are known to hybridize in captivity or the wild… But that would just be an approximation at best, as there could be very slight genetic sequence or structural differences that could impact fertility of any offspring.

      But the line between what’s a species and what’s a subspecies is a fuzzy one. Take for instance wolves and coyotes. Undoubtedly different species that do not interbreed in some places, but in eastern North America they exist in a sort of hybrid swarm of populations that have created an intermediate form that has increased in number regionally as more recent environmental conditions have favored it over smaller or larger historic forms.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 7, 2017 at 4:00 am | Permalink

        Wolves, coyotes, and dogs. 🙂 (The latter are currently considered a subspecies of Canis lupus, IIANM.

  14. Brian salkas
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Where the heck can I get Speciation? It seems like that book is impossible to find online.

    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Amazon.com has it.

    • Brian salkas
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      I also wondered about the large-mouth and small-mouth bass. They can both interbreed, produce fertile offspring and often live in the same lakes and streams! Why are these considered two different species?

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted November 6, 2017 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

        @Brian Salkas

        “Speciation” by Coyne & Orr is not for the general reader – more for the biology undergraduate market. Read it if you have a deep love of specialist terminology & a lot of patience! Check out the Amazon reviews first to see if it’s a good fit for you & also click the Amazon “LOOK INSIDE!” feature to peruse the book chapter pages.


        I’ve looked this up on the web – I don’t have a specialist knowledge of fish [or anything at all!]. In my opinion it is correct to call them separate species because these two species don’t interbreed in nature – they probably can viably hybridise with human intervention, but very rarely [or never] in nature.

        The largemouth & smallmouth prefer slightly different environmental conditions & one of them is also extremely territorial, thus the chances of a natural, viable hybrid arising are small. I’ve seen reports of hybrids on fishing blogs by anglers, but it’s all guesswork – there’s no science done to show it’s a hybrid as opposed to a mutation of one or the other.

  15. Brian salkas
    Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I also wondered about the large-mouth and small-mouth bass. They can both interbreed, produce fertile offspring and often live in the same lakes and streams! Why are these considered two different species?

    • Brian salkas
      Posted November 6, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      oops… repeat…

  16. Posted November 6, 2017 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    Do we actually have a definition of species applicable to all life? Or is the Biological Species Concept used for sexually reproducing life and other definitions are used for asexual organisms? And what justifies the BSC? Is it an arbitrary definition that evolutionary biologists agree upon?

    Also, do we have definitions for a genus? Considering that it forms half the name of a species I would think a concrete definition is needed.

    Thanks in advance to whoever replies.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted November 7, 2017 at 12:49 am | Permalink


      I’ll start off with an unsatisfactory answer that others can improve upon or blow apart

      On land [comparing animals to plants only], 99.9% of biomass [dry weight] belongs to plants & only 0.1% to animals. I’m not sure how that relates to fungi in terms of biomass, but I’ve read that 25% of biomass is from that kingdom of life [fungi aren’t plants & they aren’t animals] – I suspect that’s a figure that excludes bacteria biomass though. Eukaryotes [bacteria] take up around 350,000,000,000 tonnes of dry global biomass & everything else that’s organic [including fungi I think] represents a mere rounding error on the bacterial biomass figure

      So we don’t have taxonomic names for most organisms alive on Earth today

      What I’m saying is: If aliens came to chat to THE dominant Earth life form they’d pick a bacterium from Salford, Manchester [for example] – all the elephants, blue whales, beetles, krill, springtails, ants & kangaroos added together by weight are a meaningless ‘blip’ in terms of biomass

      And we haven’t yet determined how deep & wide bacteria live – it’s possible they occupy miles of depth underground INCLUDING under the sea floor. Maybe Bacteria versus Everything Else by dry weight is 99.999%

      The species concept is a convenient classification – a way of organising the biology that’s visible to us

      We will have difficulty usefully classifying the majority of organisms because it’s so damn complicated at the bacterial level

      Simplification with tongue firmly in cheek: It’s labels all the way down

      • Posted November 7, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        OT, just a comment on Michael Fisher note.
        If we restrict the view to vertebrates, we can see the influence humans have had in shaping earth ecosystems.
        Only some 3% of vertebrates weight is due to wild animals. The rest is us and our cattle, pets, poultry…
        Data from Vaclav Smil papers and books

  17. Thanny
    Posted November 7, 2017 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    If we’re just going on isolation and different morphological features, then Australian Aborigines would have been classified as a different species up to a few hundred years ago.

    They look quite distinct from any other human population, and had been reproductively isolated for perhaps 65,000 years.

    Yet they reproduce just fine with all other humans groups, so obviously are not a separate species (just a separate subspecies or race, depending on what terminology you want to use – though most humans are probably queasy about calling other humans part of another “subspecies”).

    It’s inevitable that a definition of species is going to have fuzzy lines, but I do dislike some of them. Such as they way many brown bears are considered subspecies of the same species, despite several of them (e.g. the Himalayan brown bear and the grizzly bear) literally never coming into contact. I think species should be determined either by what would happen if crossed or by what does happen in nature. Using the latter, there are several different species of brown bears. Using the former, there are undoubtedly many different species that would be more properly considered subspecies, as they can produce fertile offspring.

    But here I’ve used far more than 60 words without answering any question at all.

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