Tapanuli Orangutan: Scientists Just Discovered a Completely New Species of Great Ape
04 November, 2017, 00:26 | Author: Cecelia Webb
The species, called Tapanuli orang utan, lives in the Batang Toru forest on Sumatra island, and numbers only about 800 in total, making it the most endangered great ape in the world, Mr Singleton added. It combined new genome sequencing of 37 orangutans with previous study results that also showed three lineages.
Genetic analysis revealed that the oldest split in orangutan's evolution happened over three million years ago, between the Batang Toru population in Tapanuli and Bornean orangutans to the north of Lake Toba.
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 new species lived south of what was the known range for Sumatran orangutans and remained a mystery to scientists until two decades ago.
An global team of researchers has named the newly identified species the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), based on the Tapanuli district in northern Sumatra where it lives.
Computer models of their history suggests that the Tapanuli population has been completely isolated from other groups for at least 10,000 to 20,000 years.
Yet these apes have always been overlooked in favor of Sumatran orangutans that live in swampy forests north of the Tapanuli population.
"The Batang Toru orangutans appear to be direct descendants of the initial orangutans that had migrated from mainland Asia, and thus constitute the oldest evolutionary line within the genus Pongo", says one of the team, evolutionary biologist Alexander Nater from the University of Zurich. "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".
Until the Tapanuli orangutan was described, there were only six official species of nonhuman great ape: chimpanzees, two species of gorillas, bonobos, and two species of orangutan.
"Great apes are among the best-studied species in the world", said Erik Meijaard, a researcher at the Australian National University.
Skeletal and genetic evidence puts these apes on a separate evolutionary trajectory from other orangutans in Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), says a team led by evolutionary anthropologist Michael Krützen of the University of Zurich.
"It is crucial that we work to conserve the forest, because if we do not take the steps needed to protect the Tapanuli orang-utans, we could see their discovery and extinction within our lifetime", Dr Benoit said.
There is no standardized global system for recognition of new species, but to be taken seriously a discovery requires at least publication in a credible peer-reviewed scientific journal.
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