A group of researchers claimed to have found a new species of primates by studying a remote population of frizzy-haired orangutans in the Indonesian island of Sumatra. However, they fear this community of orangutan is about to go extinct.

These scientists have been researching for many years the peculiarities of the genome of the orangutans that live in the mountain forests of Sumatra.

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The newly identified orangutan species, the Tapanuli. Image credit: Andrew Walmsley

They decided to create the Tapanuli orangutan species, which would be the third species of orangutan along with the Bornean and the Sumatran species.

“There are only seven great ape species  not including us. So adding one to that very small list is spectacular” said Prof Serge Wich, from Liverpool John Moores University. “It’s something I think many biologists dream of.”

The peculiarities of the new Tapanuli orangutan

The group of apes existing in the remote forests of the Indonesian island of Sumatra were found in 1997. Since then, this community of orangutans has been deeply studied for their peculiar characteristics.

Recently, a group of scientists — from the University of Zurich, Liverpool John Moores University and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme  decided that these orangutans made up a new species which they named the Tapanuli orangutan. These apes live specifically in a 1,100 square kilometers area (about 425 square miles) in the Batang Toru forest in the Tapanuli districts of Northern Sumatra.

They analyzed a total of 37 orangutan genomes and realized they are different from the Sumatra orangutan. Historically they mixed with this species, but the levels of interbreeding with the Sumatran apes decreased and ceased completely about 10,000-20,000 years ago. As well, by studying their DNA, they considered that these apes separated from the Bornean orangutans about 700,000 years ago.

“The genomic analysis really allows us to look in detail at the history”, said lead researcher Michael Krützen from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. “We can probe deep back in time and ask, ‘when did these populations split off?’.”

This discovery is an amazing breakthrough

Professor Wich focused on the calls of these apes, which are the loud sound that the male orangutans make to let others know about their presence. According to Professor Wich, the Tapanuli orangutans can be easily distinguished from other populations by their signature call.

As well, another significant difference between this new species and similar apes is the shape of their skulls. The Tapanuli orangutans have smaller hair and frizzier hair. Moreover, they maintain a different diet if compared to that of other orangutans.

Scientists are pleased to show another ape species to the world, after years of acoustic, genetic, behavioral and anatomic analysis. Professor Wich referred to this achievement as an “amazing breakthrough”; while the Primatologist Russell Mittermeier said it was a remarkable discovery and pledge the Indonesian government to protect and ensure the survival of these newly discovered orangutans. Mittermeier is head of the primate specialist group at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

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The orangutan is already listed as a Critically Endangered species. Image credit: Tim Laman

The Tapanuli orangutan is the first great ape to be discovered in almost a century. Before the introduction of the Tapanuli species, science had recognized the existence of six great ape species: the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. Some scientists have dared to say that humans should be part of the group of great apes but some others say humans are an entirely different group.

The Tapanuli orangutan will be added to the list of Critically Endangered species

There is not a pre-established way to recognize a new species in the world, but thanks to the serious and arduous work of these scientists, the Tapanuli orangutan will soon be added to zoological textbooks. Sadly, it will also be included in the list of Critically Endangered species as this newly discovered species could be at the edge of its extinction.

According to the scientists, the Tapanuli orangutans are highly vulnerable, and their habitat has been affected by human activities. At the moment, there are only 800 of these primates. Therefore, this would be one of the most endangered species in the world, and it could quickly disappear if actions are not taken immediately to protect the forests.

“It’s very worrying to discover something new and then immediately also realize that we have to focus all of our efforts before we lose it.” said professor Wich. “If steps are not taken quickly to reduce current and future threats to conserve every last remaining bit of forest we may see the discovery and extinction of a great ape species within our lifetime”

Last year, the Bornean orangutan also entered in the list of critically endangered species due to the dramatic decline of its population. The destruction of their habitat and thus the disappearance of these apes is caused by the palm oil and pulpwood industries. On the other hand, the Sumatran orangutans are part of this list since 2008.

Source: BBC