The new species had been hiding in plain sight
It’s long been accepted that there are seven species of great apes (including humans) and two species of orangutan – Sumatran and Bornean. According to recent research, however, we’ve got a new relative to welcome to the family.
A small population of orangutans was first documented in the north of Sumatra in 1997. Although they lived outside of the known range, it was assumed that they were just an isolated group of Sumatran orangutans.
Observation showed that they were a bit different from the others in terms of both their DNA and their behaviour, but the extent of these differences has only just come to light. Analysis of skeletons and genes has revealed that these apes are in fact a new species, and they’re thought to be the oldest lineage within the orangutans.
The ‘new’ species has been called Pongo tapanuliensis – the Tapanuli orang-utan. It has a smaller skull than the other two species, and larger canine teeth. Its discovery is exciting; apes are well studied so to find a new one is surprising, and it raises the question of how many other undiscovered animals there are.
On the other hand, the numbers are worrying. There are an estimated 800 Tapanuli orangutans, which means they’re immediately classified as critically endangered and the rarest ape on Earth. What’s more, 800 apes now have to be taken away from the estimated population of the already-critically endangered Sumatran orangutan.
The scientists who unearthed the new orangutan say that effective ape conservation is more important than ever, with three orangutan species now known to be in need of protection.