Discovery of a new great ape species

7 November 2017

BPRC - 1. Discovery of a new great ape species

An international research team (with material supported by BPRC) has discovered a new orangutan species on Sumatra. The highlands of this Indonesian island, harbour a great ape species that is described by the researchers * as the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). With only an estimated 800 tapanuli alive this is the most endangered great ape species in the world.

"There are many DNA samples of orangutans needed to really prove that it is a separate monkey type," explains Ernst Verschoor (Department of molecular virology). "Centers from around the world have provided samples for this research. We also sent samples from our Bio-Bank."

In house knowledge and materials

BPRC has never been the home of orangutans, but has built up a rich collection of orangutan samples over the years. Verschoor: "First of all, because as a scientific institute we are specialized in diagnosing all known monkey viruses. In addition, we were involved in a project in Indonesia aimed at the conservation of orangutans in the past. Thus, with our scientists and our Bio-bank we have both the knowledge and the material in place to assist in this kind of meaningful research. "

How the tapanuli differs from other species

The tapanuli is the third orangutan species. Until 1996, only one species was known. That the "new" orangutans, which we now describe as tapanuli, live in the northern part of Sumatra, has been known for a long time. "It was clear that they show deviant behavior and that there are genetic differences with the other orangutans we know," explains Ernst Verschoor. "But that they really deserve their own name, only became apparent after a skeleton became available for research. From this it emerged that both the teeth and the skull of the tapanuli are substantially different from those of the other species. And that was a special moment for the researchers, because such discoveries do not occur daily."

From big six to big seven

The Tapanuli orangutans not only form the third orangutan species (recognizable by their reddish fur), but also are - excluding humans - the seventh major ape species in the world. In addition to the Sumatran and Borneose orangutan, these consist of the chimpanzee, bonobo and the eastern and western gorilla. "This new group is threatened with extinction," Verschoor puts into perspective, pointing to the finding of the study that at 1% death rate, ie 8 in 800, this newly discovered ape species is bound to disappear. "Of course, poachers are a big threat. Furthermore, there are developments in the habitat which have raised matters for concern. More research on what tapanuli need to increase their chances of survial is necessary to prevent this monkey species from extinction."

The full press release of the University of Zurich (in English) can be read here (pdf):

Description of a new great ape species, the Tapanuli orangutan in Indonesia (0.37 MB)

* The article about this discovery is published in the scientific journal Current Biology (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)31245-9)