Dr Ian Singleton describes new Great Ape species: the Tapanuli orangutan
3rd November 2017
A team of Indonesian and international scientists have described a new species of orangutan, in a paper published in the scientific journal Current Biology. The researchers, including DICE alumnus Dr Ian Singleton, demonstrate that the Tapanuli orangutan, Pongo tapanuliensis, is genetically and morphologically distinct from both Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii), and is therefore a separate species. According to the findings, the Tapanuli orangutan is in fact more closely related to the Bornean orangutan than it is to the Sumatran orangutans living further north in and around the Leuser Ecosystem, in Aceh and North Sumatra Provinces. The three orangutan species — Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli —began to diverge from their common ancestor about 3.4 million years ago.
"It is fascinating that this population of orangutans differs so much from the orangutans in the north of Sumatra, and that even in the 21st century a new species of great ape has been discovered" stated Dr Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), who has worked on improving protection of the Tapanuli orangutans and their habitat since 2005.
Tapanuli orangutans are now only found in the Batang Toru Ecosystem in the North, Central and Southern districts of Tapanuli, in the province of North Sumatra. This small remnant population of Tapanuli orangutans survives in only about 1,100 square kilometres of remaining habitat. Mining concessions, a proposed hydrodam, encroachment and illegal logging all continue to threaten the Tapanuli orangutans' habitat, and hence the existence of the new species.
Despite only now just being described, the Tapanuli orangutan is now the most endangered great ape species in the world with less than 800 individuals remaining, more endangered than the Mountain gorilla, a subspecies of the Eastern gorilla.