New orangutan species could be the most endangered great ape

Delia Watkins
November 4, 2017

Scientists and Forest Ministry officials announced on Friday the discovery of a new orangutan species in Indonesia. To investigate the find, the researchers conducted an extensive DNA study of the orangutans, sequencing the genomes of 37 individual animals.

Researchers have established that an isolated population of orangutans found in Batang Toru, North Sumatra, is actually a distinct third species. 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 new species lived south of what was the known range for Sumatran orangutans and remained a mystery to scientists until two decades ago. The Tapanuli orangutan split off from the others more than three million years ago.

Giving it the scientific name Pongo tapanuliensis, scientists have identified this first great ape species in almost 90 years.

"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 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", Alexander Nater, also of UZH, said in another statement.

It is the seventh living species of great apes, which besides humans, are the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.

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The department also believes Canada had unfairly subsidized the lumber exports at between 3.3 percent and 18.2 percent. Softwood lumber products, like pine, fir and spruce, are mainly used in the construction of single family houses.

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.

There are only believed to be around 800 Tapanuli orangutans left.

"Great apes are among the best-studied species in the world", said Erik Meijaard of the Australian National University in a press release.

There is no standardized worldwide system for recognition of new species, but to be taken seriously a discovery requires at least publication in a credible peer-reviewed scientific journal.

P. tapanuliensis has only just been identified as a new species, but it already faces severe risk of extinction.

Skeletal and genetic evidence puts these apes on a separate evolutionary trajectory from other orangutans in Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), says a team led by evolutionary anthropologist Michael Krützen of the University of Zurich.

Wiratno, the director general of conservation of natural resources and ecosystems at Indonesia's Forestry and Environment Ministry, told a news conference in Jakarta that most of Batang Toru forest was designated as protected in December 2015.

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