With so few individuals, the new species is now considered the most endangered great ape on the planet, and there are fears it could die out within the lifetime of its discoverers.
Researchers have established that an isolated population of orangutans found in Batang Toru, North Sumatra, is actually a distinct third species.
A rumoured population of what are now Tapanuli orangutans was first confirmed to exist in 1997, and primate researchers immediately set to work to figure out whether these orangutans were the same as ones living elsewhere on Sumatra.
Researchers studied the DNA, skulls and teeth of 33 orang utans killed in human-animal conflict before concluding they had indeed discovered a new species.
The Tapanuli orangutan or Pongo tapanuliensis has been named as a new species found in Sumatra, Indonesia, based on research from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (LIPI), Institut Pertanian Bogor (IPB) and various other parties. The Bornean and Sumatran species, in contrast, split from each other only around 674,000 years ago.
"We identified three very old evolutionary lineages among all orangutans, despite only having two species now described", added Maja Mattle-Greminger, a postdoctoral researcher at UZH. There is also a new species that needs protection.
"It is very exciting to discover a new great ape species in the 21st century".
"The Batang Toru orangutans appear to be direct descendants of the initial orangutans that had migrated from mainland Asia, and thus constitute the oldest evolutionary line within the genus Pongo", said Alexander Nater, researcher at the Unversity of Zurich. The Batang Toru orangutan is under threat from poaching and habitat loss. If after 200 years of serious biological research we can still find new species in this group, what does it tell us about all the other stuff that we are overlooking: hidden species, unknown ecological relationships, critical thresholds we shouldn't cross? A recent survey suggests there are no more than 800 of the animals left, which means that the Tapanuli orangutan is the most endangered species of the great apes. "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".
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