Frizzy-haired orangutan may be new great ape
There is a remote population of frizzy-haired orangutans. They are on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They seem to be a new species of primate. That is according to scientists.
The orangutans are said to be the newest members of the family tree of advanced animals. It includes humans. But it may not be around much longer. Their numbers are small. And their habitat so broken. They are in danger of going extinct. That's according to the scientists who studied them.
A study was published in the journal Current Biology. It said there are no more than 800 of the primates. The researchers named them Pongo tapanuliensis. They are the most endangered great ape species.
The researchers say the population is highly vulnerable. Its habitat is facing further pressure from development.
The scientists issued a warning. "If steps are not taken quickly to reduce current and future threats to conserve every last remaining bit of forest we may see the discovery and extinction of a great ape species within our lifetime," they said.
It's the first great ape species to be described by scientists in nearly 90 years. Previously, science has recognized six great ape species. The six species are Sumatran orangutans. They are Bornean orangutans. They are eastern gorillas. They are western gorillas. They are chimpanzees. And they are bonobos. Some scientists also classify humans as great apes. But others argue for a separate categorization.
The research is based on several sources. One was an analysis of the skeleton of an adult male. It was killed in a conflict with villagers. Another is a genetic study. It showed the population's evolutionary split from other orangutans. This happened about 3.4 million years ago. And another is an analysis since 2006 of behavioral and habitat differences.
The primates are confined to a range of about 425 square miles. It is in the Batang Toru forest. The forest is in the Tapanuli districts of Northern Sumatra. Historically, the population had low levels of interbreeding with Sumatran orangutans further north. But that completely ceased 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. That's according to the genetic study.
Unique characteristics include genetic evidence and the physical differences. These include frizzier hair. And it includes a smaller head. There are other unique characteristics. Those include diet. It includes restriction of habitat to upland areas. And it includes the male's long call.
There is no standardized international system for recognition of new species. But to be taken seriously a discovery requires publication at least. It must be in a credible peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Russell Mittermeier is a primatologist. He is head of the primate specialist group. He works at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. He called the finding a "remarkable discovery." It charges the Indonesian government with making sure the species survives.
He was not one of the 37 authors of the study. But he was "very excited" by the research.
Last year, the IUCN classified Bornean orangutans as critically endangered. This was due to a sharp population decline. It was caused by destruction of their forest habitat. It was destroyed for palm oil. And it was destroyed for pulp wood plantations. Sumatran orangutans have been classified as critically endangered. This is since 2008.
Matthew Nowak is one of the study's authors. He said the Tapanuli orangutans live in three pockets of forest. They are separated by non-protected areas.
"For the species to be viable into the future, those three fragments need to be reconnected via forest corridors," he said.
The authors have other ideas. There are development plans for the region. It includes a hydropower plant. They say it should be stopped by the government.
"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," Novak said.
Wiratno is the director general of conservation of natural resources and ecosystems. He works at Indonesia's Forestry and Environment Ministry. He told a news conference in Jakarta that most of Batang Toru forest was designated as protected. This happened in December 2015.
He said its management will be a priority and is a "great challenge."
"We are deeply committed to maintaining the survival of this species," said Wiratno, who uses one name.
The Batang Toru orangutan population was found during a field survey. It was found by researcher Erik Meijaard. He found it in 1997. A research station was established in the area. This was in 2006.
It was not until 2013 that scientists realized how unique the population was. This was when the adult male skeleton became available. It sparked the largest genomic study of wild orangutans ever carried out. It provided further evidence of a third orangutan species.