Sci-tech

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

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

Biologists had known about the unique orangutan population, which is nestled within the Tapanuli district in North Sumatra, since 1997. "I am sure that they will be conserved", Wiratno said at a media gathering in Jakarta on Friday (03/11).

To note, the Tapanuli orangutan is said to be the newest species of great apes in the world.

Like the other existing orangutan species, the Tapanuli group is highly vulnerable and faces threats from forest clearance, mining, illegal logging and poachers, as well as a planned hydroelectric dam that could potentially flood up to 8 percent of its habitat.

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.

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Along with crucial morphometric and behavioral data, their genomic comparison pointed to a genetically distinct orangutan falling outside the known Sumatran (Pongo abelii) and Bornean (P. pygmaeus) species.

Orangutans are native to Indonesian forests, though their populations have been in steady decline in recent years due to rampant deforestation.

The species, called Tapanuli orangutan, inhabit in the Batang Toru forest with a small population of 800 in total. The Bornean and Sumatran species, in contrast, split from each other only around 674,000 years ago.

"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 Kr├╝tzen, a professor at the University of Zurich and a member of the research team.

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They also found that the Tapanuli's orangutan's lineage was ancient - between 3 million and 3 1/2 million years old - and that they appeared to be direct descendants of the orangutan ancestors that crossed into what is now Indonesia and Malaysia from mainland Asia.

"It is imperative that all remaining forest be protected and that a local management body works to ensure the protection of the Batang Toru ecosystem", Novak said.

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. "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".

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

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Early research indicated both behavioural and genetic differences, but it wasn't enough to warrant the designation of a new species - since the world only has six great ape species overall, that would be a pretty big deal. Scientists were able to study the remains of an ape killed by humans.