A remote population of frizzy-haired orangutans on the Indonesian island of Sumatra seems to be a new species of primate, scientists say. But the newest member of the family tree of advanced animals that include humans may not be around much longer, the AP reports. Their numbers are so small, and their habitat so fragmented, that they are in danger of going extinct, say the scientists who studied them. A study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology said there are no more than 800 of the primates, which researchers named Pongo tapanuliensis, making it the most endangered great ape species. The researchers say the population is highly vulnerable and its habitat is facing further pressure from development.
It's the first great ape species to be proposed by scientists in nearly 90 years. Previously, science has recognized six great ape species: Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. The primates are confined to a range of about 425 square miles in the Batang Toru forest of Northern Sumatra. Aside from genetic evidence and the physical differences that are most apparent in comparison with Bornean orangutans, other unique characteristics include diet, restriction of habitat to upland areas, and the male's long call. Primatologist Russell Mittermeier called the finding a "remarkable discovery" that puts the onus on the Indonesian government to ensure the species survives.