But it’s not just its genes which separates the Tapanuli orangutan from the two existing species. The Tapanuli’s skull and jaw bones are less robust than those of their cousins, while their hair is thicker and curlier. Males can be identified by their distinctive moustache and protruding beard, as well as their noticeably flatter cheek pads which are covered in fine blonde hair.
Their “long call” – used to communicate with other orangutans when it is time to mate - is also noticeably distinct, as is their diet.
The Tapanuli consumes a number of plant species that have never been seen to be eaten by Borneans and Sumatrans. The Tapanuli orangutan has also demonstrated the ability to use tools, which has previously only been observed in high-density orangutan populations living in lowland swamp forest. The Tapanuli’s high-altitude habitat – living some 900-1,100 metres above sea level – sets them apart in this regard.
The celebration that would normally accompany a scientific discovery of this magnitude has been tempered by the Tapanuli orangutan’s immediate assumption of a particularly unwanted title: that of the world’s rarest great ape.
Fewer than 800 individuals are thought to exist in the wild, all restricted to an area of about 400 square miles in Sumatra’s Batang Toru ecosystem.
The Tapanuli population have supplanted the mountain gorilla, who were estimated to number around 880 individuals in September 2016. In contrast, there are an estimated 100,000 Bornean orangutans still extant, and around 15,000 Sumatran orangutans.
As close cousins of this newly discovered species, we must make sure that the international attention brought about by the emergence of the Tapanuli orangutan is not allowed to simply peter out to be replaced by whatever arises in the next news cycle. The extinction of any species is a tragedy – particularly those in which we played a part – but to allow such a close relative to fade into history would serve as a real indictment of the value we place on our part in the earth’s wider ecosystem.
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