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  • Cited by 4
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: February 2010

19 - The evolutionary genetics and molecular ecology of chimpanzees and bonobos



In the past few decades, developments in molecular biology and genetics have contributed a new dimension to the study of evolutionary systematics and socioecology. This has led to the creation of several new fields of research, including ‘molecular systematics’ and ‘molecular ecology.’ The study of molecular systematics applies methods of genetic analysis to such problems as: examining taxonomic relationships on a molecular level; identifying molecular phylogenies among taxa; and estimating the time of these taxa's most recent common ancestor. Molecular data can also be compared with morphological and behavioral data to gain a more comprehensive understanding of evolutionary genetics and phylogenetic relationships. The relatively new field of molecular ecology utilizes methods of DNA analysis to address questions about behavioral ecology, evolution, and conservation through direct measures of relatedness and genetic variability. Genetic analysis is now commonly used to describe social structure and dispersal patterns, to verify mating systems, and to identify and census individuals in a population (Sunnucks 2000). Similarly, behavioral ecologists can better understand aspects of social dynamics, such as the evolution of altruism through kin selection (Hamilton 1964), by combining direct observational data from the field with DNA analysis of relatedness in the laboratory.

The earliest molecular studies of chimpanzees sought to understand the degree of similarity and difference among humans and apes. Goodman (1962) examined the immunological properties of the albumin protein in apes and found that chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans showed a strong degree of similarity to the exclusion of orangutans and gibbons.