New Species of Orangutan Discovered, And They’re Already Very Endangered

Scientists have just officially named a new species of orangutan, marking the first time a great ape species has been identified in nearly 100 years. However, the good news ends there. The orangutans, who were discovered on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are already considered the most endangered great ape on earth.

In the late 1990s, this isolated population of orangutans was rediscovered by researcher Erik Meijaard who was conducting field surveys in Batang Toru in North Sumatra. Further research conducted by an international team of researchers has confirmed they are actually a third distinct species, now known as Tapanuli orangutans, or Pongo tapanuliensis.

According to researchers, the first major clue they were distinct came in 2013 after the skeleton of a male who had been killed as a result of a conflict with humans was examined and compared to other orangutans.

“We were quite surprised that the skull was quite different in some characteristics from anything we had seen before,” said Matt Nowak, who researched the morphological characteristics as part of his PhD thesis and now works for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP).

Even though they looked different, and acted differently than their relatives, more evidence was needed to confirm the suspicion. An analyses of 37 orangutan genomes provided enough evidence to classify them as a new species.

Their work, which was published in the journal Current Biology, is the largest genomic study of wild orangutans that has been conducted to date, and confirmed distinct differences between Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutans.

“It is very exciting to discover a new great ape species in the 21st century,” said lead author of the study Michael Krützen, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Genomics at the University of Zurich.

Before this, only two species of orangutans were officially recognized – the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan, both of whom are now critically endangered.

Sadly, even as scientists are announcing the new discovery, they’re also warning that these unique great apes may soon disappear. A recent survey found that there are no more than 800 individuals in the Tapanuli population in existence, which makes them the most at risk for extinction among all the great ape species.

They’re now threatened by habitat loss, a lack of genetic diversity, conflicts with humans, development, and a proposed hydropower plant in an area where they’re found in the highest density, which could affect 8 percent of their habitat and have dire consequences if it’s built.

Researchers hope their work provides incentive to protect these unique great apes, and ensure their forest habitat remains intact and connected.

“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,” added Nowak.

For more on these orangutans and how to help, check out the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme and the Batang Toru Ecosystem.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

64 comments

M. M
M. Mabout a month ago

Mother Nature will teach Man the hard way how to take care of Earth... those beautiful landscapes are being explored without environmental concern... and then we can see the "dark side" of that coin... the future will tell us if we will become the most endangered specie due to our past actions and decisions.

SEND
Pat P
Pat Pabout a month ago

When will humans even begin to act like the intelligence species we claim to be--instead of the most destructive?!

There is so much to gain from other animals, in behavioral observation, lifestyle habits, relationships. Our arrogance, selfishness and greed prevent us from sharing and learning from all the other wonderful creatures on earth.

Orangutans are incredibly interesting. Why do we kill them (and others) before even discovering the wonders they have to offer?!
Our stupidity is wrecking havoc on our natural beauty and all the wondrous living features--many that we know so little about. We should be taking the time to learn. The surprise that nature offers could enhance our lives amazingly--if we only take time, watch and listen.

SEND
Lenore K
Lenore Kabout a month ago

ok

SEND
Frances Bell
Frances Bellabout a month ago

We should treat every new species we find as critically endangered - because for all we know until we get reliable population counts, they are.

SEND
Marija M
Marija Mabout a month ago

Simply not understandable...

SEND
Lenore K
Lenore Kabout a month ago

ok

SEND
Winn A
Winn Aabout a month ago

tks

SEND
Winn A
Winn Aabout a month ago

OMG

SEND
Cruel Justice
Cruel Jabout a month ago

Species without financial value are doomed because greed is what life is about now.

SEND
Kimberly W
Kimberly Wallaceabout a month ago

TY

SEND