A few days ago the discovery of a new species of orangutan was announced. Unfortunately, it is critically endangered. How is it possible that it has not been discovered until now? What other species of orangutans exist? What threats do they face? Can we do something to protect them? Keep reading to fin d out!
KNOWING THE ORANGUTANS
We know a lot about orangutans because of the work of Biruté Galdikas, the biggest expert in behavior of orangutans, as well as Jane Goodall is from chimpanzees and Dian Fossey was from the mountain gorillas. The orangutan is an hominid, from the same family as humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.
Orangutans are the most distant hominids from us. Despite this, we share 97% of the DNA and the oldest ancestor between orangutans and humans lived about 14 million years ago. If you want to learn more about who the hominids are and how primates are classified, you can read this post.
Until now, two orangutan species were known: the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). A recent research from November 2017 adds a new species: the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuilensis). Since 1929 a new species of great ape had not been discovered, despite being one of the most studied groups in the world.
The orangutan (from the Malay orang hután, ‘person from the forest’) is distinguished from the other hominids by its orange fur. It feeds, sleeps and reproduces in the trees, although it occasionally goes down to the ground to drink from the rivers. Its long arms (up to 2.2 m) and prehensile feet are perfectly adapted to the arboreal life. The flexibility of the hip and other joints allows them to adopt impossible positions for other primates.
They have sexual dimorphism (difference between males and females): the males have bulging structures on the face that increase in size as the animal grows, a long beard and mustache, the hair of the arms longer and they have a bag hanging in the throat. This bag is used as an amplifier of their calls, which can be heard two kilometers away. They use it to defend their territory and attract females. The males are also larger than the females, weighing a hundred kilos or more and they measure 1,5 m (females weigh about 40 kg and measure 1.1 m in height).
FEEDING AND BEHAVIOUR
Orangutans are solitary and nomadic, moving through the treetops in search of fruit. They can also feed on other parts of the plants, honey and small animals such as termites, chicks, eggs and lizards.
Although they have solitary habits, their social interaction is very complex when they meet, and adolescent females can travel together for 2-3 days. Orangutans use tools and have behaviors that they learn by imitation and vary according to the region (culture).
Females give birth in a nest at the top of the trees. After 9 months of gestation, a single baby is born and will stay close to the mother until its maturity, about 8 years. The male does not cooperate in the breeding.
The reproduction rate of orangutans is very low: females reach sexual maturity at 15 and give birth every 8-9 years, so they will only have about 3-4 babys throughout its life. This means that the recovery of the species is very complicated. They can live about 50-60 years.
It is the only great ape living in Asia, in the rainforests of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Its distribution is very small due to the destruction of their habitat .
A NEW SPECIES: THE TAPANULI
In 2001 scientists defined the two orangutan species known, the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. We will not delve much into their differences to focus on the latest discovery. Mainly, Sumatran orangutans have a flatter face than Bornean’s, (which have a concave face) and their fur is thicker, longer and clearer than Bornean’s.
Pongo tapanuliensis, the new species discovered, inhabits the Batang Toru region (North of Sumatra), an ecosystem with 85% of its forest protected. How is it possible that a new species of such large animal has not been identified until now? Traditionally, species began to be classified according to their similarities and morphological differences, but nowadays many of these species are being redefined thanks to genetic studies.
The Tapanuli population was rediscovered in 1997, but it was not until 2013 that the study of a skull give researchers some clues about notable differences with other populations. The male skull was smaller than the other population’s skulls and also the fur was more cinnamon and curly in the Tapanuli. The morphological data were not enough, so the genome of this orangutan was sequenced and compared with the populations of Sumatran and Bornean oranguntans.
It was concluded that belonged to a new species, much older than the other two: it separated from the orangutan of Sumatra 3.38 million years ago. It is the oldest evolutionary line of Pongo (see image of the previous section) and has been isolated 10,000-20,000 years from other populations of Borneo. The research was also completed with observations of behavior (the call of the males is different, they consume other species of plants) and other facts that confirm the existence of this new species (less robust skull and jaws, different size of the molar than fossils of the Pleistocene, males with flatter cheeks covered in fine blond hair).
Orangutans are among the most threatened species in the world. The tendency of their populations is the decrease: since 1900, more than 91% of orangutans have disappeared. According to the IUCN , they are classified as “critically endangered” the previous step to the extinction in the wild. It is estimated that there are 14,613 individuals of Sumatran orangutan, 11,000 Bornean orangutans and there are only 800 individuals of tapanuli orangutan left. Newly discovered, it has become the most threatened species of great apes. They could disappear in a few decades: only with the death of 8 individuals per year (1%) the extinction will be a fact.
One of the dangers they face is the illegal trade of babys as pets. To do this, the poachers kill the mother and due to the strong bond between mothers and babys, the latter suffer traumas that mark them for life. If you want to know more about the physical and psychological consequences suffered by captive apes, do not miss reasons for NOT having captive primates. In addition, prostitution and sexual abuse of female orangutans is a common practice.
However, the main threat of the orangutan is the destruction of its habitat. The destruction of the forest for logging, mining and agriculture was reduced by 60% between 1985 and 2007. The Tapanuli only occupy an area of 1,000 km2.
Unfortunately , orangutans have become the visible face of the loss of biodiversity due to the extensive cultivation of palm Elaeis guineensis. Its oil is used worldwide in all types of products, especially in bakery, snacks and prepared food, cocoa creams and even cosmetics and agrofuels. Without forgetting the implications for the health of this low quality oil and the contamination caused by the destruction of waste during the production, the uncontrolled clearing of trees and fires of large areas of forest to grow the palm is killing the orangutans (thousands die every year), among other species such as the Sumatran tiger. Orangutans are also killed directly, either by entering the crops and occasionally to be marketed as food (bushmeat).
To learn more about the ecological crisis of Southeast Asia, do not miss this interview that we did to Joana Aragay, a biologist who lived firsthand the fires of 2015 in Borneo.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- Learn and share with your children, relatives and acquaintances the capabilities and problems of these wonderful animals.
- Do not buy or accept an orangutan as a gift or souvenirs made with them, especially if you travel to foreign countries, where buying and selling is cheap and easy. You can end up in jail.
- Do not buy products with palm oil in their ingredients or look for the seal that certifies sustainable plantations. It is very complicated, but not impossible We have already achieved it! Since it receives many names, for more information on the palm oil, you can check this page. You can also download this app to scan products and find out if they have palm oil.
- Do not attend circus shows or watch television programs where animals are used.
- Don’t eat bushmeat while travelling abroad.
- Avoid visiting zoos and other centers that keep primates in captivity for profit.
- Do not use products tested on animals, especially cosmetics.
- Do not buy tropical wood or look for certification FSC sustainable logging.
- Extend the useful life of electronic devices, especially mobile phones and recycle them , since they use coltan and cassiterite for its manufacture.
- Make donations to primate recovery centers such as Rainfer, Mona Foundation or APP Primadomus or adopt any of them, also here .
- El ADN del orangután es más diverso que el del humano
- Burnie, D. (2005). Animal. Madrid: Pearson Education.
- Bloom, S. (1999). Dedicado a los primates. Köln: Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft.
- Encyclopedia of Life
- Hallada una nueva especie de orangután en Indonesia
- Introducing Sumatra’s new great ape species Pongo tapanuliensis
- Los tapanuli, la octava especie de grandes primates vivos
- Una nueva especie de orangután descubierta en Sumatra está casi extinta
- Cover image