The decades-long research had a breakthrough in 2013 when scientists involved in conservation efforts in an area of North Sumatra province known as the Batang Toru ecosystem recovered parts of a skeleton from an adult male orangutan killed by local residents.
Taxonomically, the Tapanuli orangutan is closer related to the Bornean orangutan, which therefore must be separated into its own species and is the ancestor of both the great apes of Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abeli) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). To investigate the find, the researchers conducted an extensive DNA study of the orangutans, sequencing the genomes of 37 individual animals.
However, severely threatened by loss of habitat, hunting and other man-made developments, there are now 800 fewer Sumatran orangutans than previously thought, making them among the most threatened great ape species in the world, the researchers rued.
Following the discovery of the skeletal material, believed to have come from a Tapanuli orangutan killed in a human-animal conflict in 2013, an worldwide team of researchers set out to understand more about the distant ape relative of humans.
It was less than 700,000 years ago that the Bornean and Sumatran species became distinct from each other.
Yet these apes have always been overlooked in favor of Sumatran orangutans that live in swampy forests north of the Tapanuli population.
"The Batang Toru orangutans appear to be direct descendants of the initial orangutans that had migrated from mainland Asia, and thus constitute the oldest evolutionary line within the genus Pongo", said Alexander Nater, researcher at the Unversity of Zurich.
There are only believed to be around 800 Tapanuli orangutans left.
This is a photograph of Pongo tapanuliensis, a newly identified distinct species of orangutans, bringing the total number of non-human great apes to seven.
The analysis revealed that the new species split away from the others around 3.3 million years ago.
One of the researchers, biological anthropologist Colin Groves from the Australian National University in Canberra hails the team's achievement.
Tragically, the new addition to the hominid family is already on its way out.
"When we realized that Batang Toru orangutans are morphologically different from all other orangutans, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place", said Dr Michael Krützen, a professor at the University of Zurich and a member of the research team.
"If steps are not taken quickly to reduce current and future threats to conserve every last remaining bit of forest we may see the discovery and extinction of a great ape species within our lifetime", they said.
There is no standardized worldwide system for recognition of new species, but to be taken seriously a discovery requires at least publication in a credible peer-reviewed scientific journal.
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