, Volume 42, Issue 4, pp 309-318

The subspecies concept in primatology: The case of mountain gorillas

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The criteria for the application of subspecific units in living primate populations have received little attention relative to other vertebrate taxa, even though they have important implications for conservation strategies for many nonhuman primate populations. One of the most critically endangered primates is the mountain gorilla,Gorilla gorilla beringei, of which 600 animals exist in east-central Africa. FollowingSarmiento et al. (1996), taxonomists have proposed splitting these populations into two subspecies as part of a revised taxonomy of the genusGorilla. In this paper I review the application of the subspecies concept in primatology, using the gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Virungas as case studies. An examination of genetic, morphological, biogeographic, ecological, and behavioral evidence indicates that reclassifying Bwindi gorillas as taxonomically distinct from those in the Virungas is not well supported and needs further study. Because taxonomy provides the basis of conservation management policies, a cautious and conservative approach to the subspecies question is warranted in the case of endangered primate populations.