New orangutan species discovered in Sumatra

Researchers working in Sumatra have discovered a orangutan species previously unknown to science.
By Joseph Scalise | Nov 07, 2017
A group of international researchers working in Sumatra have found a brand new orangutan species, according to research published in the journal Current Biology.

Scientists first analyzed the unique primates -- which were discovered in their remote mountain forest habitat in 1997 -- because of a "genetic peculiarity" within the species. The apes are known as Tapanuli orangutans, and they are the third species in the region alongside the Bornean and Sumatran.

This discovery is exciting because, not only are the orangutans the first new great ape species to be found in almost 100 years, but they are also extremely rare. Estimates show that there are only 800 left on Earth.

Researchers first began to take note of the apes when DNA samples showed they were different from other orangutans in Sumatra. That piqued the team's interest, and caused them to reconstruct the animals' evolutionary history by studying their genetic code.

Such analysis allowed the team to look back in time and see when the Tapanuli population first split from other orangutans. After analyzing 37 complete genomes, they found that the apes broke off from their Bornean relatives less than 700,000 years ago.

The team studied many of the animal's traits to reach that conclusion, but the most important distinction was subtle differences in the shape of the Sumatran, Bornean, and Tapanuli orangutan skulls. That was the final piece that helped the team confirm their findings.

"There are only seven great ape species - not including us," study co-author Serge Wich, a professor from Liverpool John Moores University, told BBC News. "So adding one to that very small list is spectacular.I t's something I think many biologists dream of."

However, though the discovery is exciting, it is also cause for concern. As the species' numbers are so low, the apes already qualify for the Critically Endangered species list. Scientists hope the study will bring attention to the orangutans and help give them more protection.

"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," said study co-author Matthew Nowak, a researcher at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, according to The New York Times.

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