Sci-tech

New Orangutan species 'among most threatened great apes'

New Orangutan species 'among most threatened great apes'

An analysis of DNA from 37 living orangutans, including two Tapanuli animals, indicated that Tapanuli and Sumatran orangutans diverged from a common ancestor around 3.4 million years ago. Morphometric, behavioral, and genomic evidence for a new orangutan species.

Yet these apes have always been overlooked in favor of Sumatran orangutans that live in swampy forests north of the Tapanuli population. And unfortunately, it's already critically endangered.

"It's the first declaration of a new great ape species in about 100 years", Ian Singleton, co-author of the study and director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, told AFP.

It was only after identifying key differences in the teeth, skull, DNA, diet and calls of the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) that the worldwide team concluded they had found a unique species.

The two other known orangutan species are Pongo abelii, which can be found on the island of Sumatra, and Pongo pygmeaeus, endemic to Borneo. This is the first great ape species to be described by scientists in almost 90 years. The first clue that P. tapanuliensis was a species all on its own came from the skull of a male killed in 2013, which showed different characteristics of the teeth and the skull itself. The results confirmed their observations, with another surprising revelation: not only did they uncover three very old evolutionary lineages, but the newly discovered population was the oldest.

"When we realized that Batang Toru orangutans are morphologically different from all other orangutans, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place", said Dr Michael Krützen, a professor at the University of Zurich and a member of the research team.

"The Batang Toru orangutans appear to be direct descendants of the initial orangutans that had migrated from mainland Asia, and thus constitute the oldest evolutionary line within the genus Pongo", said Alexander Nater, also from the Unversity of Zurich.

"It is imperative that all remaining forest be protected and that a local management body works to ensure the protection of the Batang Toru ecosystem", Novak said.

The team notes that we will need to quickly implement conservation measures to ensure that illegal logging, road construction, and other human threats don't impact the long-term survival of the species.

By the latest estimate, there should be no more than 800 individuals belonging to the new orangutan species.

Early research indicated both behavioural and genetic differences, but it wasn't enough to warrant the designation of a new species - since the world only has six great ape species overall, that would be a pretty big deal.

One of the researchers, biological anthropologist Colin Groves from the Australian National University in Canberra hails the team's achievement.

It's especially surprising that scientists were able to find this species of ape, because apes are among the most well-studied animals on the planet.


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