BBC Earth (Asia) - - Update | The Latest Intelligence -

A pop­u­la­tion of orang­utans that lives in a re­mote part of north­ern Su­ma­tra, and that was only dis­cov­ered in 1997, has now been iden­ti­fied as a sep­a­rate species. With only around 800 in­di­vid­u­als known to ex­ist, it’s now also the most threat­ened of all great ape species.

It was once be­lieved that all orang­utans were one species, but since 1996 sci­ence has recog­nised two: the Bornean and Su­ma­tran orang­utan (Pongo pyg­maeus and Pongo abelli, re­spec­tively). The fol­low­ing year, a long-ru­moured pop­u­la­tion of orang­utans liv­ing in the Batang Toru re­gion of north­ern Su­ma­tra was seen for the first time, but ini­tially the apes were thought to be of the species P. abelli.

How­ever, close study of an adult skele­ton found in 2013 has re­vealed sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in the skull and teeth of the Batang Toru apes, lead­ing to their new clas­si­fi­ca­tion: Pongo tapan­ulien­sis, or the Ta­puli orang­utan. Ge­nomic anal­y­sis sug­gests that the species must have split from

P. abelli around 70,000 years ago.

“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 lead au­thor Alexan­der Nater, from the Univer­sity of Zurich.

With just 800 in­di­vid­u­als known,

P. tapan­ulien­sis goes straight to the top of the en­dan­gered great apes league ta­ble, not least be­cause large ar­eas of its habi­tat are threat­ened by plans to build a hy­dro­elec­tric dam in the re­gion. The dis­cov­ery isn’t great news for P. abelli in that re­gard, ei­ther – there are now 800 less of them than was pre­vi­ously be­lieved.

Above: Closer ex­am­i­na­tion of a skele­ton found in 2013 has re­vealed that

P. tapan­ulien­sis is a sep­a­rate species

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