A scientific paper has confirmed that a new species of primate has been discovered in the forests of Sumatra: the Tapanulis orangutan, which adds to the family of the six known species of great apes. While the newly-found species also carries the orangutan name and are found in the same region of Borneo island, scientists say it is different from two previously known orangutan species. The differences between them have taken two decades for scientists to confirm.
“I discovered the population south of Lake Toba in 1997, but it has taken us 20 years to get the genetic and morphological data together that shows how distinct the species is,” said Dr. Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist affiliated with Australian National University and an author of the paper, as quoted by the New York Times.
The decades-long research had a breakthrough in 2013 when scientists involved in conservation efforts in an area of North Sumatra province known as the Batang Toru ecosystem recovered parts of a skeleton from an adult male orangutan killed by local residents. The characteristics of the orangutan, to their surprise, consistently differed from other Sumatran orangutans.
“When we realized that Batang Toru orangutans are morphologically different from all other orangutans, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place,” said Dr Michael Krützen, a professor at the University of Zurich and a member of the research team.
This prompted the researchers to conduct 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. They found that the Tapanuli population had become isolated from other Sumatran orangutan populations sometime in the last 10,000 to 20,000 years.
Dr Biruté Mary Galdikas, the president of Orangutan Foundation International, said she hoped media attention over the announcement will further efforts to protect the endangered orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra.
The Tapanuli orangutan is described as living only in an area of forest about 425 square miles in size. The team of researchers believes that it is the most endangered of all surviving great apes, with only about 800 left.