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Newly discovered Sumatra orangutan species is already endangered

06 Novembre 2017

"'If steps are not taken quickly to reduce current and future threats to conserve every last remaining bit of forest, we may see the discovery and extinction of a great ape species within our lifetime", said Professor Serge Wich from the LJMU School of Natural Sciences and Psychology.

On the basis of genetic evidence, we have concluded that they are indeed distinct from both the other two known species of orangutan: Pongo abelii from further north in Sumatra, and Pongo pygmaeus from Borneo. The orangutan had mortal injuries, and afterwards scientists studied its skull and compared with with 34 other adult mamle orangutans.

With the Batang Toru orangutan living near Lake Toba in Indonesia, the discovery was proudly shared across the social media accounts of Indonesian government departments last week. They've named the new species the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).

Researchers have identified a new species of orangutan in an isolated forest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the BBC reports. They found enough differences to suggest that it was a new species. "If after 200 years of serious biological research we can still find new species in this group, what does it tell us about all the other stuff that we are overlooking: hidden species, unknown ecological relationships, critical thresholds we shouldn't cross? Humans are conducting a vast global experiment, but we have near-zero understanding of what impacts this really has, and how it could ultimately undermine our own survival". Mature males have cheek flanges similar to those of Bornean orangutans, but their slender build is more akin to Sumatran orangutans.

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Their aspect is significantly different from other orangutans. Even the Mountain gorillas, a subspecies of the eastern breed, are safer, according to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

To make completely sure, we needed more accurate comparisons of their body dimensions, or "morphology". Researchers reached their conclusion after looking at the skeleton of a male specimen which got killed by villagers. Careful studies of the animal revealed consistent differences in its skull and teeth. The Sumatran apes split off from this group about 3.4 million years ago, based on genetic data, but the Bornean group may have only split from the Tapanuli's ancestors some 674,000 years ago. Behavioral and ecological evidence lends further support for the notion that the orangutans living in Batang Toru are a separate species, the researchers said.

"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 Alexander Nater, also of the Unversity of Zurich. The Tapanuli orangutans are also severely threatened by hunting and the proposed development of a hydroelectric dam that would flood large parts of their best habitat if implemented. That's especially discouraging given that previous analyses suggest a mortality rate of less than one percent per year would still be enough to drive the Tapanuli orangutans extinct.

Newly discovered Sumatra orangutan species is already endangered