Scientists have just identified a new species of orangutan in Sumatra that has been boggling scientists’ minds for years. The research project has now concluded that the small population of great apes are in fact their own species, and have since been named the Tapanuli orangutan.
The new species is the first great ape to be described for a century, and now means that there are three separate species of orangutan, along with the Bornean and the Sumatran. However, researchers have pointed out that there are only 800 individuals of the new species, already making it the world’s most threatened ape species.
The scientists studied the make-up of the orangutans’ DNA for their study to conclude the new findings. Professor Michael Krützen from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who is one of the lead researchers, told BBC News, “The genomic analysis really allows us to look in detail at the history. We can probe deep back in time and ask, ‘when did these populations split off?’.”
They analysed a total of 37 orangutan genomes, which led them to the conclusion that the newly identified ape species separated from their relatives in Borneo less than 700,000 years ago; which is a little amount of time in comparison to evolution. One of the defining factors that separates the two species was found to be the vocal calls that they make.
Professor Serge Wich, from Liverpool John Moores University, said, “Those calls can carry a kilometre through the forest. If you look at these calls, you can tease them apart, and we found some subtle differences between these and other populations.” A further difference is the shape of their skulls, which the scientists found had consistent differences between all three orangutan species. Professor Wich told BBC News that the discover is an “amazing breakthrough”, adding, “There are only seven great ape species – not including us. So adding one to that very small list is spectacular. It’s something I think many biologists dream of.”
Although this is good news for studies and our exploration of the natural world and its varied species, it isn’t so great that the great ape will be immediately listed as a Critically Endangered species. Professor Wich commented, “It’s very worrying to discover something new and then immediately also realise that we have to focus all of our efforts before we lose it.”
IMAGE CREDIT: SWNS
I am Jess Murray, wildlife conservationist, photographer and writer. Follow my Facebook page and Instagram account to be part of the journey. I like to document the natural world and create awareness through my writing so that your future can be sustainable and positive.