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04 November 2017, 12:27 | Francis Delgado
No more than 800 orangutans from this newly identified species remain
"I am sure that they will be conserved", Wiratno said at a media gathering in Jakarta on Friday (03/11).
The small family of great ape species just got a new member - a previously unclassified type of orangutan living in an isolated colony in Sumatra.
Following the discovery of the skeletal material, believed to have come from a Tapanuli orangutan killed in a human-animal conflict in 2013, an global team of researchers set out to understand more about the distant ape relative of humans.
The new species lived south of what was the known range for Sumatran orangutans and remained a mystery to scientists until two decades ago.
Orangutans are native to Indonesian forests, though their populations have been in steady decline in recent years due to rampant deforestation.
With studies revealing the Tapanuli orangutan skull to be "potentially unique", the researchers then conducted the largest ever genomic analysis, which involved a comparison of genomic features such as DNA sequence, structural variation and gene expression, on wild orangutans and found evidence pointing to a third species.
"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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"It's the first declaration of a new great ape species in about 100 years", Mr Ian Singleton, co-author of the study and director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, said on Thursday.
In fact, Batang Toru, or Tapanuli, orangutans split three million years ago from the Borneo population. Sumatran and Bornean orangutans separated around 674,000 years ago, the team estimates.
"The Batang Toru orang-utans appear to be direct descendants of the initial orang-utans that had migrated from mainland Asia, and thus constitute the oldest evolutionary line within the genus Pongo", Alexander Nater, of the University of Zurich said. Orangutan populations are threatened by deforestation for agricultural use, and P. tapanuliensis is no exception.
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.
One of the researchers, biological anthropologist Colin Groves from the Australian National University in Canberra hails the team's achievement. A recent survey suggests there are no more than 800 of the animals left, which means that the Tapanuli orangutan is the most endangered species of the great apes.
"If even 8 out of 800 animals per annum were killed or otherwise removed from the population, the species might be doomed", the scientists caution.
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