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New great ape species is a rare find

An orangutan holds on the branch of a tree before being rescued and relocated from at a swath of destructed forest in Indonesia. Photo: Binsar Bakkara / AP

A new, isolated species of orangutan has been found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra nearly a century after being originally reported, growing our great ape family by one. The new species was described Thursday in Current Biology.

Population analyses of the species (Pongo tapanuliensis) "suggest there are fewer than 800 individuals, making it the most endangered of the great apes," writes April Reese for Nature. And, a proposed dam on the Batang Toru river would divide the population into two areas, which could endanger them further. The New York Times reports the Tapanuli's lineage is 3-3.5 million years old.

""It would be bitterly ironic if it goes extinct as a biologically viable population just as it is described as a new species," orangutan researcher Biruté Mary Galdikas told Nature.

The discovery: Erik Meijaard, founder of conservation group Borneo Futures in Jakarta, first discovered reports of an isolated orangutan population, prompting a search. It wasn't until 2013, however, that scientists found solid evidence, when locals killed one of the males. According to Australia's public broadcaster, ABC, the male's "skull was smaller, its face flatter and its canine teeth wider than those from Sumatran and Bornean orangutans."

The context: Finding a new mammal species is rare, and a new primate species is even more unlikely. Great apes are our closest relatives, but we still have much to learn about them and how they evolved.

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