New orangutan species is critically endangered

A recently discovered new species of Sumatran orangutan is critically endangered, with only about 800 individuals left in the wild.
By Ian Marsh | Nov 07, 2017
Scientists have identified a new orangutan species living in the rain forests of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The population is the most critically endangered of all the great apes, with only about 800 individuals left in the wild.

The discovery is detailed in the journal Current Biology.

"I discovered the population south of Lake Toba in 1997, but it has taken us 20 years to get the genetic and morphological data together that shows how distinct the species is," said co-author Dr. Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist affiliated with Australian National University, in a report by The New York Times.

The new species, called the Tapanuli orangutan, or Pongo tapanuliensis, inhabits a small part of the rain forest, taking up only about 425 square miles.

Researchers discovered the new species when they were able to study parts of the skeleton of a male orangutan killed by residents in a North Sumatran province. They were surprised to find unique characteristics in the skull along with other traits that differed from other Sumatran orangutans.

"When we realized that Batang Toru orangutans are morphologically different from all other orangutans, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place," said team member Dr. Michael Krtzen, a professor at the University of Zurich, in the Times report.

After conducting what researchers described as the "largest genomic study of wild orangutans to date," they found that the Tapanuli orangutan populations became isolated from other Sumatran orangutans between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. They also discovered that the Tapanuli orangutans are an ancient lineage about 3 million years old.

"We have learned how little we know about orangutan evolution despite man decades of research and how much more there is to learn," said Dr. Meijaard. "Orangutans are ancient creatures, as old as the very first members of our own genus Homo."

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