A group of scientists has identified a new species among the great apes: it is the Pongo tapanuliensis -also known as Tapanuli- orangutan- , and with it the number of species of great apes that exist today goes from six to seven. It is the first great ape species discovered in 88 years.
Unfortunately, it is feared for their survival, since the Tapanuli, endemic to the island of Sumatra, make up a small population and are also in a very vulnerable situation, as they live in a threatened habitat. In particular, according to the researchers, there are only about eight hundred primates of this species.
Orangutans, which are among the great apes, a group that also includes chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus) and gorillas (Gorilla beringei and Gorilla gorilla), are among our closest relatives in the animal kingdom -with they share 97% of our DNA. Among them, until now two different species were recognized: the orangutans of Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus) and those of Sumatra (Pongo abelii). With this new finding, there would be three.
“It is incredibly exciting to discover a new species of monkey,” acknowledged Serge Wich, a professor specializing in Primate Biology at John Moores University, Liverpool, United Kingdom, and co-author of this research. He also noted that it was a shock for the team to find such a different population when the Sumatran orangutans are only a hundred kilometers away.
Wich does not hide his biggest fears about the survival of this species of orangutans, which live in the forests of Batang Toru, in northern Sumatra, in an area of approximately 1,000 square kilometers: “What is worrisome is that these species they find under a great threat: in that zone there is hunting, a gold mine and they have planned (to build) a hydroelectric plant in an area in which we find a very high density of this new species”.
When speaking of hunting, they refer to the illegal hunting of which these great apes are victims and which has them on the verge of extinction. Also contributing to this worrying situation is the deforestation caused by the action of man -which sometimes does not hesitate to cause fires to gain arable land- and leaves them without habitat and without food, which leads to death by starvation.
The bases of the study
The research has been based on the analysis of the skeleton of a dead adult male during a conflict with local villagers , a genetic study of orangutans -which marks the evolutionary division that occurred more than three million years ago compared to other orangutans- and a study of their behavioral and habitat differences carried out since 2006. For example, on a physical level, these Tapanuli are distinguished from other orangutans in their frizzier hair and in their heads, which are smaller. They are also different by their diet or by the loud sounds that the males emit to announce their presence – they can be heard even a kilometer away.
Dr. Marina Davila-Ross, of the University of Portsmouth (United Kingdom) and also co-author of the study, published in the journal Current Biology, explained how she was surprised by the genetic, morphological and behavioral differences of the Tapanuli with respect to the other orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo.
Scientists warn that if measures are not taken immediately to reduce current threats and those that may occur in the future to conserve the habitat in which these animals live, “we may see the discovery and extinction of a species of great ape in the course of our life.”