Tapanuli Orangutan
MM8117 140317 19919 TimLaman
Range South Tapanuli in the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
Scientific Classification
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Primates
Family Hominidae
Genus Pongo
Species Pongo tapanuliensis
Conservation Status
Critically Endangered
The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), is a species of orangutan native to South Tapanuli in the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. It is one of three known species of orangutan, alongside Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii), found farther northwest in the island, and Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). It was described as a distinct species in 2017.

Discovery and Naming

An isolated population of orangutans in the Batang Toru area of South Tapanuli was reported in 1939. The population was rediscovered by an expedition to the area in 1997, but it was not recognized as a distinct species then. Pongo tapanuliensis was identified as a distinct species, following a detailed phylogenetic study in 2017. The study analyzed the genetic samples of 37 wild orangutans from populations across Sumatra and Borneo and conducted a morphological analysis of the skeletons of 34 adult males. The holotype of the species is the complete skeleton of an adult male from Batang Toru that died after being wounded by locals in November 2013. The skull and postcranium of the specimen are stored in the Zoological Museum of Bogor. The skull and teeth of the Batang Toru male differ significantly from those of the other two orangutan species. Comparisons of the genomes of all 37 orangutans using principal component analysis and population genetic models also indicated that the Batang Toru population is a separate species.

The specific name, tapanuliensis, as well as the common name, Tapanuli orangutan, refer to Tapanuli, the hilly region in North Sumatra where the species lives.


Genetic comparisons show that Tapanuli orangutans diverged from Sumatran orangutans about 3.4 million years ago, but became more isolated after the Lake Toba eruption that occurred about 75,000 years ago. They had continued sporadic contact that stopped at least 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. Tapanuli orangutans diverged from Bornean orangutans much later, about 674,000 years ago. Orangutans travelled from Sumatra to Borneo as the islands were connected by land bridges as parts of Sundaland during recent glacial periods when sea levels were much lower. The present range of Tapanuli orangutans is thought to be close to the area where ancestral orangutans first entered what is now Indonesia from mainland Asia.


Bornean, Sumatran & Tapanuli orangs (horizontal)

Males of each orangutan species (from left to right): Bornean, Sumatran, Tapanuli

Tapanuli orangutans resemble Sumatran orangutans more than Bornean orangutans in body build and fur color. However, they have frizzier hair, smaller heads, and flatter faces. Dominant male Tapanuli orangutans have prominent moustaches and flat cheek pads covered in downy hair. Both male and female Tapanuli orangutans have beards, while only male Bornean orangutans have beards.


The loud, long-distance call or 'long call' of male Tapanuli orangutans has a higher maximum frequency than that of Sumatran orangutans, and lasts much longer and has more pulses than that of Bornean orangutans. Their diet is also unique, containing unusual items like caterpillars and conifer cones.

Habitat and Distribution

Tapanuli orangutans live in tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests located south of Lake Toba in Sumatra. The entirety of the species is found in an area of about 1,000 km² (390 sq mi) at elevations from 300 to 1,300 m (980 to 4,300 ft). Tapanuli orangutans are separated from the island's other species of orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan, by just 100 km (62 mi).


With fewer than 800 individuals restricted to an area of about 1,000 km² (390 sq mi), the Tapanuli orangutan is the rarest great ape. It is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of hunting, conflict with humans, the illegal wildlife trade and rampant habitat destruction for small-scale agriculture, mining and a proposed hydroelectric project in the area with the highest density of orangutans, which could impact up to 10% of its already dwindling habitat and degrade important wildlife corridors. Conservationists predict an 83% decline in three generations (75 years) if the necessary conservation measures and practices are not implemented. Inbreeding depression is likely due to the small population size and fragmented range. This is supported by the genomes of the two Tapanuli orangutan individuals, which show signs of inbreeding.

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