A new monkey species found on a volcano in Myanmar is already close to extinction with fewer than 250 left and its habitat under threat, researchers claim.
Named Popa langur, the new species was discovered after an extensive genetic study by the German Primate Center and Fauna and Flora International.
Working from an extensive field survey in Myanmar and data from museums that included a 100-year-old specimen at the Natural History Museum, the team confirmed it as a previously unrecorded species of monkey.
The creature is found in central Myanmar and is named after the sacred Mount Popa, which is home to about 100 of the 250 or so living Popa langur in the world.
Adult female and juvenile Popa langur (pictured) found in the crater of Mount Popa, Myanmar where the majority of the remaining 250 individuals live
The habitat of the Popa langur (pictured) within the crater of Mount Popa, Myanmar is under threat and this has added to the decision to place the species on the critically endangered list
Mount Popa is an extinct volcano, which features an important wildlife sanctuary, as well as a sacred pilgrimage site, home to Myanmar’s most venerated ‘Nat’ spirits.
The new species of primate live in four isolated populations in Central Myanmar. and all four of the groups are threatened by habitat loss and hunting.
For this reason, despite only recently being added to the tree of life Popa langur is already on the list of critically endangered species.
It belongs to the Trachypithecus genus of langurs that are widely distributed in Asia with 20 known species. Despite numerous morphological and genetic studies, very little has been known about their evolutionary history.
Roberto Portela Miguez, Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals at the Natural History Museum, said previous work had only focused on a few langur species at a time.
‘Having the opportunity to collaborate with such a great group of colleagues from around the globe allowed us to integrate more information from more specimens and deliver one of the most comprehensive studies on this genus to date.
‘Whilst there are subtle physical differences, such as fur colouration, tail length, the size of the molars and skull shape, genetic work was key to establish that it was a new species,’ explained Miguez.
Historical collections such as the one at London’s Natural History Museum are an incredible resource with a great deal of untapped potential that can help us advance our knowledge of the natural world, said Miguez.
He added that the specimen used as part of this study dates from 1913 and was gathered by Guy C. Shortridge, a prolific 20th century British zoologist.
Geographic distribution of the Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa) and the related species Phayre’s langur (Trachypithecus phayrei) and Shan langur (Trachypithecus melamera)
‘This study demonstrates that natural history collections are a valuable and key resource for genetic research and in the context of the current biodiversity crisis, they are clearly even more relevant and important today than ever before,’ he said.
The genus Trachypithecus is the most species-rich and widespread among the Asian colobine monkeys.
Researchers obtained samples and complete mitochondrial DNA of all 20 known species of Trachypithecus and gained a more detailed insight into the species diversity within this genus.
Subsequent analyses of the data were able to enhance their understanding of the evolutionary history of this iconic group of primates.
Christian Roos, lead scientist with the German Primate Center says DNA analysis of specimens at the Natural History Museum led to it being declared a new species.
Stuffed specimen of the newly described Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa) in the Natural History Museum in London – kept at the museum since 1913
This was then confirmed by samples collected from the field by FFI’s research team.
Miguez said it was a ‘bittersweet discovery’ due to the fact there are so few individuals left in the wild with fragmented populations.
‘Although Mount Popa is a national park, meaning the species that occur there are legally protected, hunting and deforestation for the timber industry and fuelwood still occur,’ Miguez explained.
‘The hope is that by giving this species the scientific status and notoriety it merits, there will be even more concerted efforts in protecting this area.’
Ngwe Lwin, a primatologist with FFI’s Myanmar program said additional field studies and protection measures are urgently required and will be conducted soon.
WHY ARE NON-HUMAN PRIMATE NUMBERS DECLINING?
Behind the collapse in numbers is an increase in industrial agriculture, large-scale cattle ranching, logging, oil and gas drilling, mining, dam building and road construction.
The illegal trade in bushmeat – killing apes and monkeys for their flesh – is also decimating the animals, as is changing climates and diseases spread from humans to apes.
Growing trees to produce palm oil – used in many popular foods – is a particular threat to primates in Indonesia, as is mining for gold and sapphires in Madagascar.
With many species living in rainforests, the cutting down of millions of acres of forest to supply the increasing demand for timber or to clear land for agriculture is destroying their habitat and making populations more fragmented.