Zoo Basel

Basel Zoo houses orangutans in compatible pairs, but sometimes the apes have their own ideas

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February 04, 2019 11:43 AM

It appeared that 14-year-old Budi and 11-year-old Maja, two orangutans cohabiting together at Berlin’s Basel Zoo, were the parents to newborn ape Padma — a paternity test determined that was a lie.

According to a release from the Basel Zoo, the facility recently gave Padma, a baby orangutan Maja gave birth to, a paternity test as part of zoo procedure.

Basel Zoo is home nine orangutans. The animals live in three family groups each consisting of one male, one female and one infant. The male and female orangutans are placed with their most “compatible” match as part of Basel Zoo’s Endangered Species Program. In this case, compatible “means that the pair share as little DNA as possible in order to maintain genetic variability within the zoo population.”

The Basel Zoo knows the best laid mating plans of conservationists can go awry; that’s why they do the paternity tests.

“As all of the groups come into contact with each other at the fence, young orangutans routinely undergo a paternity test, and Padma was no exception. Zoo keepers used a special cotton swab to take samples of saliva from both Padma and the rest of the orangutans,” the zoo wrote of their protocol in the release. “The samples were then sent to the Laboratory for Forensic Genetics at the University of Basel’s Institute for Forensic Medicine. Employing the same method used to determine paternity in humans, the laboratory examined who Padma’s father could be.”

The Basel Zoo said that, up until now, the paternity tests have delivered the expected results. Padma is a scandalous exception. Instead of Budi, the orangutan matched with Padma’s mother, 18-year-old Vendel turned out to be the new arrival’s father.  It is a reveal made for an animal version of Maury.

Padma’s shocking results, aren’t that surprising for the Basel Zoo when viewed from a “biological perspective.”

“As the only male at Basel Zoo with cheek pads, Vendel is very easy to spot,” the zoo wrote in their release. “He is also the dominant male of the three male orangutans at the zoo. In the wild, female orangutans similarly tend to look for – and pair up with – males with cheek pads when they are in heat.”

The fence that separates their enclosures was no match for the attraction between Vendel and Maja. This is further proof that even the most well-meaning matchmaking attempts can fail.

“It seems that the females simply cannot resist a male with cheek pads,” the zoo added.

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