A beautiful new species of orangutan has been discovered in Indonesia – however the population is tiny.
In fact, with just 800 of these newly discovered creatures left, they are sadly the most endangered species out of the great ape family.
Known as the Tapanuli orangutan, these sophisticated primates are now the third species of orangutan to be found after Bornean and Sumatran orangutans.
They differ physically from the other species, having smaller skulls and larger canine teeth.
The Tapanuli orangutan – referred to officially as Pongo tapanuliensis – were found living in the forests of North Sumatra and at first, experts didn’t notice anything different about them.
However, an examination of skeletal remains by global researchers revealed ‘unique’ structural differences.
Dr Matt Nowak from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) explained how the discovery was a surprise for the team:
We were quite surprised that the skull was quite different in some characteristics from anything we had seen before.
Armed with this knowledge, researchers proceeded to conduct a large-scale genomic analysis, comparing genomic features such as DNA sequence, structural variation and gene expression.
The results were fascinating, with evidence strongly suggesting these apes were in fact a third species.
New species of orangutan discovered in Sumatra – and is already endangered… https://t.co/b1lmT7dhn9 UK News Science
— Henry Millton (@media_en) November 2, 2017
Dr Maja Mattle-Greminger made the following statement:
For quite some time, we had been working on genomic data to investigate the genetic structure and evolutionary history of all existing orangutan populations.
One consistent result was that we identified three very old evolutionary lineages among all orangutans, despite only having two species currently described.
— SOS (@OrangutansSOS) November 2, 2017
Dr Alexander Nater then continued to conduct in-depth computer modelling, reconstructing the population history of orangutans from within the Batang Toru region.
Analysis showed the Batang Toru population could have been isolated from other Sumatran populations for 10 to 20,000 years at least.
Study leader Professor Michael Krützen said:
When we realised that the Tapanuli orangutans were morphologically different from all other orangutans, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
— RAN (@RAN) November 2, 2017
However, Professor Krützen also warned about the vulnerability of the new species, placing importance on the protection of the forest:
All conservation efforts must focus on protecting the species’ environment.
Dr Nowak added:
If steps are not taken quickly to reduce current and future threats and to conserve every last remaining bit of forest, a great ape species may become extinct within a few decades.
— Freja Petersen (@Freja_Petersen) November 2, 2017
More and more rainforest is being lost to agricultural use – with forests in the Batang Toru ecosystem being lost to palm oil plantations.
Furthermore, worrying plans are underway to build a hydroelectric dam.
This would be extremely intrusive for the Tapanuli orangutans’ natural habitat.
— RAN (@RAN) November 2, 2017
Hopefully it’s not too late to save this species from extinction, when we have only just learned of it’s existence.