A Surprising New Orangutan Species Was Just Identified, And It's Critically Endangered

The Tapanuli orangutan. Image credit Tim Laman

It was less than 700,000 years ago that the Bornean and Sumatran species became distinct from each other.

Puji Rianti, a researcher from Bogor Agricultural University, told Anadolu Agency that these physical differences were one of the reasons these orangutans were declared a separate species.

Biologists had known about the unique orangutan population, which is nestled within the Tapanuli district in North Sumatra, since 1997. The designation of this group as distinct from Sumatran orangutans means that they are a very small population of their own, and also that there are 800 fewer Sumatran orangutans than before.

The orangutans, or Pongo Tapanuliesensis, were found in the isolated highlands in the Batang Toru forests in Tapanuli, where there are less than 800 individual orangutans estimated by researchers living in the high altitude of over 850 meters above sea level. "We identified three very old evolutionary lineages among all orangutans, despite only having two species now described", says Maja Mattle-Greminger, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Zurich.

Firstly, they used the skull of a specimen killed during what they describe as a "human-animal conflict" to compare head and jaw characteristics with those of 33 adult male orangutans.

A new orangutan species has been found living in Sumatra, occupying an isolation location in the northern portion of the island.

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Rianti said in the Pleistocene period - 2.6 million years ago when the last of the five documented ice ages occurred - these giant apes experienced extreme climate change, and were separated from other orangutan species.

"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. The oldest evolutionary line in the genus Pongo is actually found in Tapanuli orangutans, which appear to be direct descendants of the first Sumatran population in the Sunda archipelago.

"It isn't an everyday event that we find a new species of great ape, so indeed the discovery is very exciting", says senior researcher, evolutionary anthropologist Michael Krutzen from the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

While new species are discovered often, especially as scientists use modern techniques like genome sequencing, it is highly unusual for a new great ape species to be identified in the 21st century, since they are among the most extensively studied animals on the planet.

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. "All conservation efforts must focus on protecting the species' environment".

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