KOTA KINABALU: A Sabah-based wildlife researcher was among a team of international scientists who have helped identify a new orangutan species.
Dr Benoit Goossens, director of NGO research outfit Danau Girang Field Centre, was among wildlife experts involved in the discovery of the Pongo tapanuliensis or Tapanuli orangutan found at three Tapanuli districts in northern Sumatra.
The new species was found after detailed analysis of the orangutan inhabitants of the 150,000ha Batang Toru Ecosystem conservation area on the Indonesian island.
Among those in the international team were researchers from the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University where Dr Goossens is a Reader.
“The Batang Toru populations of orangutan in Sumatra were only rediscovered fairly recently in 1997,” he said in a statement Thursday.
However, it was not until 2013 that the researchers received the skeleton of an adult male orangutan that was killed during conflict, and they realised there were significant physical and genetic differences in these apes.
“By comparing the skull to other orangutan, it was clear that this skull showed dramatic differences,” he said.
This suggested that the Batang Toru population was potentially unique, and the international team led by Professor Michael Krützen at the University of Zürich worked together to gather further evidence.
Part of their work involved completing the largest genomic study of wild orangutan in history.
Prof Krützen said they then realised that the Batang Toru orangutan was morphologically different from other orangutan.
“The pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The oldest evolutionary line in the genus Pongo is actually found in Batang Toru orangutan, which appears to be a direct descendant of the first Sumatran population in the Sunda archipelago,” he said.
Computer modelling reconstructed the population history of the three orangutan species, revealing that the Batang Toru apes have been isolated for 10,000 to 20,000 years.
Cardiff University lecturer Pablo Orozco-ter Wengel said the divergence between the Tapanuli orangutan and the other two orangutan species came as a surprise.
“It pushed the divergence between these species to as far as three million years ago, with the South of Toba orangutan being more similar to the Bornean orangutan, than to the North of Toba orangutan,” he said.
With no more than 800 individuals, the new species of orangutan is now considered the most endangered species of great ape on the planet.
“It’s exciting to describe a new great ape species in the 21st century – however, with such low numbers of the Batang Toru orangutan, it is vital that we now work to protect them,” Dr Goossens said.
“Mining, hunting, deforestation and human encroachment all risk the lives of these great apes. It is crucial that we work to conserve the forest, because if we do not take the steps needed to protect the Tapanuli orangutan, we could see their discovery and extinction within our lifetime,” he added.