New Great Ape Species Discovered

Science writer Ng Yi Min introduces us to our long lost relative.

Ng Yi Min
20th November 2017
New species has been immediately listed as the most endangered.

Good news to all the enthusiastic biologists and wildlife conservationists – a new great ape species has recently been identified in Indonesia, a country in Southeast Asia, after nearly a century since the last ape species being discovered. Prior to this, there were only six known living species of non-human great apes on this planet Earth: Sumatran and Bornean orang-utans, Western and Eastern gorillas, common chimpanzees and Bonobos.

This newly discovered ape species, Pongo tapanuliensis (also known as Tapanuli orang-utan), marked the third species of orang-utan known. Before we pull out our champagne glasses and start cheering for this new discovery, note that Tapanuli orang-utan, albeit newly discovered, is already classified as critically endangered animal.

The term “orang-utan” is derived from Malay and Indonesian words whereby the word “orang” means person, while the word “hutan” means forest – the “forest person”. With its population size estimated to be lower than 800, this newly identified ape species is found to roam the high-elevation Batang Toru forest at the South Tapanuli district of North Sumatra (hence the species name P. tapanuliensis).

They have frizzier orange hairs, smaller heads and flatter faces...

For several decades, conservationists and scientists had been suspicious of the presence of this population of orang-utan. This is because Tapanuli orang-utans are more closely related to Bornean orang-utan than Sumatran orang-utan (Sumatran orang-utan lives on the same island as Tapanuli orang-utan while Bornean orang-utan are endemic at to Borneo which is across the sea).

To be more exact, Tapanuli orang-utans are similar in appearance to both Sumatran and Bornean orang-utans but are slightly smaller in size. They have frizzier orange hairs, smaller heads and flatter faces than Sumatran orang-utans. Through years of studies and series of testing and checking, it was revealed that the Sumatran, Bornean and Tapanuli orang-utans comprise three distinct evolutionary lineages, with the oldest lineage belongs to the Tapanuli orang-utans!

Like the other two orang-utan species, Tapanuli orang-utans are omnivorous, feeding on fruits, shoots, small insects and reptiles. However, they survive mainly on a heavily fruit-based diet, with favourites including mangoes, lychees, durian, and figs.

The Tapanuli orang-utan uses homemade tools to help with eating and drinking!

They will spend much of the day searching for fruits and then eating them to gain enough nutrition. However, despite their big size, Tapanuli orang-utans spend most of their time high up in the trees using their long arms and strong and flexible hands and feet with opposable thumbs to search for food, and prevent themselves from being preyed on by larger predators on the ground. Fun fact: the Tapanuli orang-utan uses homemade tools to help with eating and drinking!

However, humans are the biggest threat to the three orang-utans species as many human activities (such as illegal hunting and excessive deforestation) cause destruction of their natural habitats. This risks the lives of these great apes, causing their population number to decline drastically.

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