New Monkey Species Is More Unique than Thought
WASHINGTON — A new species of monkey identified in Tanzania's highlands last year is an even more remarkable find than thought -- it is a new genus of animal, scientists said Thursday.
The new monkey, at first called the highland mangabey but now known as kipunji, is more closely related to baboons than to mangabey monkeys, but in fact deserves its own genus and species classification, the researchers reported in the journal Science.
So they have re-named it Rungwecebus kipunji, and it is the first new genus of a living primate from Africa to be identified in 83 years.
"This is exciting news because it shows that the age of discovery is by no means over," said William Stanley, mammal collection manager at The Field Museum in Chicago, which has a dead specimen of the grayish-brown monkey.
"Finding a new genus of the best-studied group of living mammals is a sobering reminder of how much we have to learn about our planet's biodiversity," added Link Olson of the University of Alaska Museum, who worked with Stanley and others on the report.
Scientific classification arranges plants and animals along a hierarchy meant to illustrate how closely things are related to one another.
Swedish botanist Carl von Linne, often known as Linnaeus, devised the system used as the basis for modern taxonomy -- class, order, family, genus, species. Humans, for instance, belong to the Mammalia class, the primate order, the hominid family, the genus Homo and the species sapiens -- Homo sapiens for short.
The new African monkey, whose discovery was reported in Science almost precisely a year ago, was originally placed in the genus Lophocebus, commonly known as mangabeys. Rare and shy, it was identified only by photographs.
But then a farmer trapped one and it died and scientists could get a close look, including doing some DNA testing.
Olson's genetic analysis showed the monkey is most closely related to baboons in the genus Papio, and not to mangabeys.
"Had we gotten these surprising results based on a single gene, we'd have been pretty skeptical, but each of the genes we analyzed either firmly supported the grouping of Kipunji with baboons or failed to support a close relationship between Kipunji and other mangabeys," Olson said in a statement.
An adult Kipunji is about 3 feet tall with a long tail, long grayish-brown fur, a black face, hands and feet.
Adults make a distinctive, loud, low-pitched "honk-bark" call. They live in mountainside trees at elevations of up to 8,000 feet and eat leaves, shoots, flowers, bark, fruit, lichen, moss and invertebrates.
The last new genus of African monkey to be named was Allen's swamp monkey, discovered in 1907 but not recognized as a new genus until 1923.
"To find, in the 21st century, an entirely new species of large monkey living in the wild is surprising enough. To find one that can be placed in a new genus, and that sheds new light on the evolutionary history of the monkeys of Africa and Eurasia as a whole is truly remarkable," said John Oates, a professor of Anthropology at Hunter College in New York.
"This discovery also reinforces the view that mountains in southern Tanzania have played an important -- and until recently unexpected -- role as a refuge for many species long extinct elsewhere."