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Pongo tapanuliensis Zurich researchers behind new orangutan species discovery

A Tapanuli orangutan

Genetic and behavioural differences have been observed between Tapanuli orangutans (pictured) and others from Sumatra and Borneo.

(Maxime Aliaga)

A team of around 40 researchers, including two from the University of Zurich, have identified a new species of orangutan that lives in northern Sumatra. 

The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) will become the eighth great ape species known to science thanks to a team of researchers from around the world, including Switzerland. Only around 800 animals exist as part of an isolated population in the Batang Toru forests in northern Sumatra. 

In a paper published in the journal Current Biology on Thursday, scientists demonstrate that the Tapanuli population is distinct from the Sumatran (Pongo abelii) and Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) species. 

“Through genetic and genomic analysis we were able to show that the Tapanuli orangutan comes from a very old lineage that has been isolated for 10,000 to 20,000 years,” Michael Krützen of the Department of Anthropology of the University of Zurich told swissinfo. 

Other scientists involved in the study observed morphological and behavioural differences in comparison to Sumatran and Bornean cousins. The different lines of evidence were eventually brought together in Zurich to make the case for a new species. 

Endangered

The isolated population of orangutans was first spotted by Australian researchers around 20 years ago. However, it was during an analysis of a skull from a specimen killed in 2013 when members of the Swiss team – comprising Krützen and Maja Greminger-Mattle – became convinced it was a new species. Certain bone and dental features were found to be quite distinct. 

The re-classification will bring worldwide attention to what is now the world’s most endangered great ape. 

“This will help put the population on the map for conservation. The animals are under threat from poaching and loss of habitat due to the construction of a dam,” says Krützen. 

swissinfo.ch and agencies

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