Sci-tech

Newly discovered orang utan species is 'most endangered'

Newly discovered orang utan species is 'most endangered'

To note, the Tapanuli orangutan is said to be the newest species of great apes in the world.

Researchers from the University of Zurich, the University of Konstanz, and elsewhere considered genome sequence data for more than three-dozen orangutans, including 17 individuals newly sequenced for the study.

In 2013, researchers involved in conservation efforts in an area of North Sumatra province known as the Batang Toru ecosystem recovered parts of a skeleton from an adult male orangutan killed by local residents.

Last year, the IUCN classified Bornean orangutans as critically endangered due to a precipitous population decline caused by destruction of their forest habitat for palm oil and pulp wood plantations.

The region that lies south of what was believed to be the southern boundary of the Sumatran orangutan's range.

Giving it the scientific name Pongo tapanuliensis, scientists have identified this first great ape species in almost 90 years.

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

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Before 1997, this isolated population of orangutans in a remote jungle was little more than a myth. Historically, the population had low levels of interbreeding with Sumatran orangutans further north but that completely ceased 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, according to the genetic study.

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

"Great apes are among the best-studied species in the world", said Erik Meijaard of the Australian National University in a press release. "Humans are conducting a vast global experiment, but we have near-zero understanding of what impacts this really has, and how it could ultimately undermine our own survival". 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?

The discovery means that now humans have seven close relatives: two species of gorilla, plus chimpanzees, bonobos and three orangutans.

P. tapanuliensis has only just been identified as a new species, but it already faces severe risk of extinction.

"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.

New genomic analysis suggests the population is indeed unique.


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