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Another great ape has been dis­cov­ered in Su­ma­tra: the TA­PAN­ULI ORANG­UTAN. And it’s al­ready in dan­ger, says Richard Smyth.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

Another great ape has been dis­cov­ered

The fam­ily Ho­minidae has a new mem­ber. Con­fir­ma­tion ar­rived this month of a third orang­utan species, found in the up­land forests of Batang Toru in north­ern Su­ma­tra. To the ros­ter of great apes – the western and east­ern go­ril­las, chim­panzee, bonobo, Bornean and Su­ma­tran orang­utans and, of course, our­selves – we can now add the Ta­pan­uli orang­utan, Pongo tapan­ulien­sis. But fewer than 800 are left.

Sci­en­tists have known for some time that Ta­pan­uli orang­utans dif­fer from those else­where on the is­land of Su­ma­tra. Now re­search has shown that th­ese dif­fer­ences – ge­netic, be­havioural and mor­pho­log­i­cal – mark out tapan­ulien­sis as a species. The other pop­u­la­tions will re­tain the name Su­ma­tran orang­utan, Pongo abelii.

Ta­pan­uli orang­utans have frizzier hair. Males also sport a prom­i­nent mous­tache, and their face-pads – called flanges – tend to be less prom­i­nent than in either P. abelii or the Bornean orang­utan, P. pyg­maeus. Like abelii – but un­like pyg­maeus – Ta­pan­uli fe­males have wispy red beards. And both sexes have less ro­bust skulls and jaws than their coun­ter­parts else­where.

The dis­cov­ery comes at a crit­i­cal time: both Bornean and Su­ma­tran orang­utans are classed as Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered by the IUCN. Gabriella Fredriks­son of the Su­ma­tran Orang­utan Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gramme ex­pects tapan­ulien­sis to be granted the same sta­tus. “The Ta­pan­uli orang­utan will be­come the most en­dan­gered great ape in the world, as there are no oth­ers with such a small pop­u­la­tion,” she says.

Plans for hy­dro-power de­vel­op­ments in Ta­pan­uli orang­utan habi­tat have sparked ur­gent con­cerns about stew­ard­ship of the re­gion. “It seems the pol­i­tics are fo­cused only on short­term gain,” says Fredriks­son.

Richard Smyth writes about nat­u­ral his­tory and sets our Crossword – see p121.

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