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In a testament to how much of the world is still a mystery to us, scientists formally identified a new species of orangutan on Thursday, the seventh known species of great ape in addition to two species of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. "I discovered the population south of Lake Toba [in Sumatra, Indonesia] in 1997, but it has taken us 20 years to get the genetic and morphological data together that shows how distinct the species is," explained conservation scientist Dr. Erik Meijaard to The New York Times.
The orangutan, dubbed the Pongo tapanuliensis or the Tapanuli orangutan, is the world's rarest and most endangered great ape — just 800 are left in their territory, which stretches a mere 425 square miles in size.
Scientists realized the Tapanuli orangutan was its own distinct species after recovering an oddly-proportioned skeleton of an adult that was killed by locals. What ensued was the "largest genomic study of wild orangutans to date," with scientists concluding that the Tapanuli orangutan had become isolated and distinct from its cousin, the Sumatran orangutan, some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.
"We have learned how little we actually knew about orangutan evolution despite many decades of research and how much more there is to learn," said Meijaard. "Orangutans are ancient creatures, as old as the very first members of our own genus Homo." Read more about the newest member of the great ape family at The New York Times.