Pongo Tapanuliensis: Third Orangutan Species Identified, Already Facing Severe Extinction Risk

Pongo Tapanuliensis: Third Orangutan Species Identified, Already Facing Severe Extinction Risk

It was only after identifying key differences in the teeth, skull, DNA, diet and calls of the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) that the worldwide team concluded they had found a unique 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.

"It is the first declaration of a new great ape species in about 100 years", Dr Ian Singleton, co-author of the study and director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, told AFP.

Researchers then conducted what they called the "largest genomic study of wild orangutans to date", comparing the genes from the recovered orangutan with data collected in the past from other field sites on Sumatra.

With only a population of 800, the Tapanuli orangutans, which have thick curly hair, became the third species of the giant ape found in the country.

The new species lives further south than the known range for Sumatran orang-utans and, although there had been rumours about an unusual troop in the area, the population was not recorded until 1997. Sumatran and Bornean orangutans separated around 674,000 years ago, the team estimates.

Additionally, in-depth genetic analysis has revealed that Tapanuli orangutans are actually the oldest orangutan species of the three - their branch split off the original orangutan species more than three million years ago.

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"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. It's very likely Tapanuli orangutans are the direct descendants of the initial orangutans that had migrated from mainland Asia, and we just barely found them now.

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.

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

All three species of orangutan face dire threats to their populations at the hands of humans.

A new species of orangutan has been found hidden from the rest of the world in remote jungle in Indonesia. The paper suggests that a mortality rate of even 1 percent per year could drive this newly identified orangutan species to extinction. Conservation efforts in Sumatra must now take into account that there is a new species which requires protection.

"It's pretty exciting to be able to describe a new great ape species in this day and age", said University of Zurich evolutionary geneticist Michael Krützen, adding that most great apes species are listed as endangered or critically endangered.

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