New orangutan species identified

11-12-2017

For the first time since 1929 a new species of great apes has been discovered. A team of researchers have identified a new orangutan species in Indonesia, which has been named the Tapanuli orangutan. With its approximately 800 individuals, the new species is the most endangered of the just eight known species of great apes in the world.

Since 1997 we have known of an isolated population of orangutans, which was previously thought to be a sub-species to the Sumatran orangutan. Now, however, a research team has published a study on the population in the journal Current Biology, in which it determines that it is in fact instead a separate species.

“It is truly amazing, that the researchers have been able to identify a whole new orangutan species, and we hope that this discovery can help to ensure the preservation of its last habitats” says Chairman of Save the Orangutan Elin Schmidt as she attended the partners meeting in Indonesia with BOS Foundation, Indonesia's largest orangutan organization.

From seven to eight great apes

Besides our selves, only six other species of great apes were previously known: two species of gorillas, two species of orangutans as well as the chimpanzee and the bonobo (formerly known as the pygmy chimpanzee). With the researchers’ new discovery an eighth species of great apes can now be added: the Tapanuli orangutan.

The researchers have via DNA tests established that the Tapanuli orangutan is more closely related to the Borneo orangutan than the Sumatra orangutan, which it lives closer to. The researchers believe that the three groups began to separated from about 3.4 million years ago. The Tapanuli orangutan has among other things a more cinnamon like colour, a curlier hair and a larger skull.

Its habitat is threatened by deforestation

The Tapanuli orangutan lives on the northern part of Sumatra in the so-called Batand Toru eco system, where the researchers estimate that almost 800 orangutans are living. Unfortunately around 60 percent of the orangutans’ habitat on Sumatra has been cleared in the period 1985 to 2007, and a major dam project in the area is threatening to destroy eight percent more of the Tapanuli orangutan’s habitat by 2020.

“If wild orangutans are to continue living in Borneo and Sumatra in the future, we need to stop clearing the orangutans’ forest home and find solutions that allow room for both humans and orangutans to live side by side” says Director of Save the Orangutan Hanne Gürtler.

All three orangutan species are critically endangered, as their last habitats are disappearing by an alarming rate in Borneo and Sumatra. With its mere 800 individuals, the new orangutan species is the most endangered great ape species known to us.

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Facts about the orangutan:

Distribution/range: Orangutans only live on the Southeast Asia islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and it is the only great ape found outside of Africa.

Population numbers: All three different species of orangutans are declared critically endangered. In 2017 IUCN estimated that there currently lives around 100.000 orangutans on Borneo, but the population is dwindling due to deforestation.

Re-production: Orangutans is thought to have the longest childhood in the world, as the age of first reproduction is around 15 years. Orangutan is also the mammal with the longest period between offspring – up to 8 years.

Fragmentation: Many of the remaining orangutan population are fragmented and low in numbers, which creates a high risk of inbreeding and thereby fragile individuals.