Frizzy-haired, smaller-headed orangutan may be new great ape

Muriel Hammond
November 4, 2017

With so few individuals, the new species is now considered the most endangered great ape on the planet, and there are fears it could die out within the lifetime of its discoverers.

This prompted the researchers to conduct what they called the "largest genomic study of wild orangutans to date", comparing the genes from the recovered orangutan with data collected in the past from other field sites on Sumatra.

The Tapanuli orang utan species became isolated from its Sumatran relatives about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, eventually settling in the Batang Toru forest.

An global team of researchers from 34 institutions, led by anthropologist Alexander Nater of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, pursued two lines of evidence to determine if the ape colony was different enough from the two already acknowledged orangutan species - known as the Bornean and Sumatran - to be defined as a third.

"We have proposed that the Tapanuli orangutans be categorized as critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN]", Puji Rianti, a researcher from the Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB), said. Sumatran and Bornean orangutans separated around 674,000 years ago, the team estimates.

"We identified three very old evolutionary lineages among all orangutans, despite only having two species now described", added Maja Mattle-Greminger, a postdoctoral researcher at UZH.

"It is very exciting to discover a new great ape species in the 21st century", says Michael Krützen, principal author of the study.

They also found that the Tapanuli's orangutan's lineage was ancient - between 3 million and 3 1/2 million years old - and that they appeared to be direct descendants of the orangutan ancestors that crossed into what is now Indonesia and Malaysia from mainland Asia.

"Great apes are among the best-studied species in the world", said Erik Meijaard, a researcher at the Australian National University.

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. If after 200 years of serious biological research we can still find new species in this group, what does it tell us about all the other stuff that we are overlooking: hidden species, unknown ecological relationships, critical thresholds we shouldn't cross?

Tragically, the new addition to the hominid family is already on its way out.

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.

A new species of frizzy-haired orangutans has been discovered in the remote jungles of Indonesia.

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