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3 Types of Orangutans: Species, Facts and Photos

Orangutans are red-haired, tree-dwelling apes essential to Southeast Asia's biodiversity. In this article, we will explore the three types of orangutans to learn their distinctive characteristics, habitats, and behaviors. 

We also included updates on their conservation status. Stay informed as we delve into the life of these great apes.

Orangutan Classification

In the family Hominidae sit orangutans, Asia's native great apes, sharing the group with creatures like gorillas and humans. 

Under Pongo, orangutans' sole genus, today's scientists identify three unique species—the Bornean, recognized in 1996; their relatives, the Sumatran, recognized concurrently; and the newer Tapanuli, joined in 2017. 

Related Read: Orangutan Facts.

Next, let's explore these fascinating primate species' distinct features and respective habitats.

3 Types of Orangutan Species

1. Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)

Bornean Orangutan
Photo by Bernard DUPONT on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Bornean orangutans thrive primarily in Southeast Asia's forest habitats. Found on the island of Borneo, they prefer living in swampy, hilly, and old-growth rainforests. Their environment varies significantly, from lowland swamps to dipterocarp forests. 

Their distinctive physical features include orange-red hair and lengthy arms, facilitating seamless canopy travel. This type of orangutan is large, with adult males averaging 165 pounds and adult females at around 85 pounds.

Male orangutans further demonstrate intriguing variety. They show bimaturism, existing as either flanged or unflanged. The difference is striking; flanged males are twice as large as females with clear facial disks and throat patches.

Young orangutans stay with their mothers until they give birth again, typically every 6 to 8 years. They adhere to a diet rich in forest fruits, contrasted by the occasional bird egg or bark. 

Unfortunately, Bornean orangutans are critically endangered3, with a predicted decline of over 82% from 1950 to 2025. Loss of habitat and hunting are the key reasons behind this alarming statistic.

2. Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii)

 Sumatran Orangutan
Photo by cuatrok77 on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Sumatran orangutans reside in lowland forests, swamps, and mangroves of Indonesia's Sumatran island. Heavy logging has isolated them in fragmented forests.

Noticeable physical characteristics include their long, fine red body and facial hair. Adult male orangutans are identifiable by their white-haired cheek pads and an average weight of about 200 lb. Females, smaller by nature, average at 99 lb.

Notably, female orangutans are dedicated mothers. Following birth, the next 8 to 9 years focus on their offspring's survival. Mothers teach essential survival skills such as feeding and social behaviors directly, with food provision continuing until the young ones learn to differentiate between food types independently.

Food choices for Sumatran orangutans fluctuate with the seasons. Fruits, mostly figs, comprise a substantial part of their diet. Notably, instances of meat-eating, specifically slow lorises, have been observed during times of seasonal fruit shortages1

Sadly, Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered due to the alarming rates of habitat loss and poaching over recent years. Consequently, when unchecked, their rate of decline could exceed 80% over 75 years.

3. Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis)

Tapanuli orangutan
Photo by Prayugo Utomo on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Tapanuli orangutan holds residence in South Tapanuli on Sumatra, Indonesia's island. This group was recognized as a distinct species in 2017, thanks to a thorough phylogenetic study analyzing genetic samples and comparing the genomes of orangutans across Sumatra and Borneo2

These orangutans bear a close resemblance to Sumatran orangutans. Apparent differences, however, are their frizzier hair, smaller heads, and flat, broad faces. Males have pronounced mustaches and large flat cheek pads (flanges). Their diet, which includes caterpillars and conifer cones, adds to their distinction.

The Tapanuli orangutan numbers less than 800, placing it among the most endangered great apes. Their population has seen a substantial reduction due to habitat fragmentation, conversion, and illegal killing.

Extinct Orangutan Species

The Pleistocene era witnessed two distinct orangutan species: the Chinese orangutan (Pongo weidenreichi) and Pongo hooijeri, originating from South China and Vietnam, respectively. Dental fossil records indicate both species had larger teeth than existing species. 

Orangutan populations experienced a significant decrease during this era, likely due to forest habitat reduction during the Last Glacial Maximum. 

Orangutan FAQs

1. What are the orangutan species?

There are three orangutan species: Sumatran, Bornean, and Tapanuli.

2. What is the most endangered orangutan species?

The Tapanuli species is the most endangered among orangutans. Sadly, IUCN classifies all three orangutan species as critically endangered.

3. What are the major threats to orangutans?

Deforestation due to oil palm plantations, habitat loss, and poaching are the major threats to the orangutan population.

4. What organizations are focused on protecting orangutans?

Various organizations, like Borneo Orangutan Survival and Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, focus on protecting wild orangutans and their habitats.

1

Hardus, M. E., Lameira, A. R., Zulfa, A., Atmoko, S. S. U., De Vries, H., & Wich, S. A. (2012). Behavioral, Ecological, and Evolutionary Aspects of Meat-Eating by Sumatran Orangutans (Pongo abelii). International Journal of Primatology, 33(2), 287–304.

2

Nater, A., Mattle‐Greminger, M. P., Nurcahyo, A., Nowak, M. G., De Manuel, M., Desai, T., Groves, C. P., Pybus, M., Sonay, T. B., Roos, C., Lameira, A. R., Wich, S. A., Askew, J. A., Davila‐Ross, M., Fredriksson, G., De Valles, G., Casals, F., Prado-Martinez, J., Goossens, B., . . . Krützen, M. (2017). Morphometric, behavioral, and genomic evidence for a new orangutan species. Current Biology, 27(22), 3487-3498.e10.

3

Ancrenaz, M., Gumal, M., Marshall, A.J., Meijaard, E., Wich , S.A. & Husson, S. (2023). Pongo pygmaeus (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2023: e.T17975A247631797. 

By Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Isabela is a determined millennial passionate about continuously seeking out ways to make an impact. With a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with honors, Isabela’s research expertise and interest in artistic works, coupled with a creative mindset, offers readers a fresh take on different environmental, social, and personal development topics.

Photo by e-smile on Pixabay.
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