Lonely Planet Writer

New species of orangutan discovered in Sumatran wilderness

A new species of orangutan has been confirmed for the first time in the wilderness of Indonesia. Up until now, scientists had believed there were only two types of orangutan in the country, the Pongo pygmeaeus, found in Borneo, and the Pongo abelii which lives on Sumatra.

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Only 800 of the new species remain. Image by GettyImages/Anup Shah

However, an isolated population of primates that live in the tropical forests of Batang Toru in the north of Sumatra have now been confirmed as a unique species. The new species has already been classified as ‘in danger’ with only 800 of them remaining, and they are now considered the most endangered of all the great apes. The first inkling that scientists had of the uniqueness of the new species was when they examined the skeleton of a male orangutan that was killed in 2013. When they compared its skull to those of others, they found that characteristics of the teeth and skull were very different.

New species confirmed. Image by Tim Laman

Professor Michael Krützen from the University of Zurich said: “when we realised that the Tapanuli orangutans were morphologically different from all other orangutans, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.” Previous studies of the genetic linage of orangutans in Indonesia had suggested three different species … which did not seem to tally with the two officially known species. And so, the confirmation that the Tapanuli orangutan was unique became the final missing piece in the jigsaw.

Computer modelling suggests these orangutans had been isolated from other populations for at least 10,000 to 20,000 years. “It is very exciting to discover a new great ape species in the 21st century,” said Professor Krützen, “[but] all conservation efforts must focus on protecting the species’ environment.” More and more of their rainforest is being lost to agricultural use, particularly for palm oil, and plans for a hydroelectric dam could also have disastrous consequences for their habitat.

The research team said intensive conservation efforts would be needed to avoid the new species becoming extinct within decades of its discovery by man.