A New Orangutan Species Has Been Discovered And It's Already Endangered

The Tapanuli orangutan. Image credit Tim Laman

With the new designation, there are now seven living great ape species - the Tapanuli orangutans join the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.

Six living species of non-human great apes are now recognized: Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

The apes occupy a portion of North Sumatra, an Indonesian Island, known as Batang Toru. While there had been rumors, no one was sure that this population of orangutans existed until 1997.

Following the discovery of the skeletal material, believed to have come from a Tapanuli orangutan killed in a human-animal conflict in 2013, an global team of researchers set out to understand more about the distant ape relative of humans.

"When we realized that the Tapanuli orangutans were morphologically different from all other orangutans, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place", said Michael Krützen, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Genomics at UZH. It was less than 700,000 years ago that the Bornean and Sumatran species became distinct from each other.

Now, researchers have described a new great ape species, the Tapanuli orangutan.

Unfortunately, the researchers said, there are only about 800 Tapanuli orangutans left.

The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) is the first new species of great ape described in almost 90 years.

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"We must do everything possible to protect the habitats in which these magnificent animals occur, not only because of them, but also because of all the other animal and plant species that we can protect at the same time".

With studies revealing the Tapanuli orangutan skull to be "potentially unique", the researchers then conducted the largest ever genomic analysis, which involved a comparison of genomic features such as DNA sequence, structural variation and gene expression, on wild orangutans and found evidence pointing to a third species. It combined new genome sequencing of 37 orangutans with previous study results that also showed three lineages.

Their calculations showed that the Tapanuli population was isolated from all other Sumatran populations of orangutans for at least 10,000 to 20,000 years.

"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", said co-author Alexander Nater of the University of Zurich.

Until recently, scientists thought there were only two genetically distinct types of orangutan, Bornean and Sumatran.

One of the researchers, biological anthropologist Colin Groves from the Australian National University in Canberra hails the team's achievement.

The discovery promoted Dr Nater to carry out extensive computer modelling to reconstruct the population history of orangutans in the region.

It's especially surprising that scientists were able to find this species of ape, because apes are among the most well-studied animals on the planet.

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