Once and Future Primate Order


Closer look shows several species had not been identified

Washington, DC � In an unprecedented gathering of primate specialists, new taxonomic classifications were confirmed that reveal many more species of primates exist than previously estimated.

The unique cross-disciplinary meeting was convened by Conservation International (CI), the Primate Specialist Group of the IUCN-World Conservation Union Conservation's Species Survival Commission, and the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC) of Columbia University, at the Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida.

"We have to know the units, the biological entities, that we are trying to conserve," said Russell A. Mittermeier, CI President and Chairman of the Primate Specialist Group. "We cannot effectively protect endangered species in the absence of a clear understanding of taxonomy."

For the first time, molecular genetic research was synthesized into existing museum-based research and ongoing studies of primates in the wild. The newly updated classification impacts the number of species and subspecies of primates in the Neotropics, Africa, Madagascar and Asia.

Among the most important findings from the meeting were the following:

  • The number of recognized primate species climbed from approximately 275 to 310, an increase of more than 12 percent. The total number of primate taxa, including subspecies, is believed to be about 608.
  • The number of recognized orangutan taxa increased from two to four, and all are considered endangered. The Bornean and Sumatran populations were recognized as distinct species, Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii, prior to the workshop. Genetic information suggests that they may be as different as chimpanzees and gorillas. Furthermore, the Bornean orangutan appears to be divided into three subspecies. This is a major finding for this endangered ape, and makes the task of conserving these species more challenging.
  • The number of families of Neotropical or New World monkeys increased from two to five.
  • Six species of bushbabies or galagos, relatives of lemurs found on mainland Africa, are now believed to represent some 40 distinct species based on unique traits including vocalizations, facial patterns, hair structure, and even the morphology of the male genitalia, as well as genetic differences.
  • A new type of chimpanzee has been recognized. In addition to the pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus) and three subspecies of common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthi and Pan troglodytes verus), primatologists now recognize Pan troglodytes vellerosus from Nigeria. And, similar to the orangutans, all chimpanzee taxa are now considered endangered.
  • The gorillas, previously considered a single species, were divided into two species and five subspecies. The eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) includes the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) of the Virunga Volcanoes area of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the yet unnamed, but distinct, population of Uganda's Bwindi (Impenetrable) Forest, and the eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri). Western Africa is home to at least two additional taxa, the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli). The mountain, Bwindi and Cross River gorilla populations all number only in the hundreds and are considered critically endangered.

New information about the anatomy, vocalizations, behavior and chromosome numbers of primates, as well as sequencing of their nuclear and mitchondrial DNA, influenced the analysis, which called into question previous categorizations. "As a primate geneticist and conservation biologist, I marveled at the extraordinary effort made by traditional taxonomists and field biologists in integrating the latest molecular genetic evidence to define as much as possible every unique genus, species and subspecies of primate," said Dr. Don J. Melnick, executive director of CERC and professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Columbia University. "This workshop was a watershed event, that will stand as a model for how to accomplish similar analyses of other groups of organisms."

"The focus here may be on primates but this analysis points to greater implications about biodiversity overall," said Dr. Anthony Rylands, Senior Director for Conservation Biology at CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science and deputy chairman of the Primate Specialist Group. "The only way to conserve biodiversity is to understand what species exist in order to be able to address their special needs. With this analysis, we hope to open new doors to understanding of the living species around us."

One example of the increased number of primates at risk is the Cross River gorilla. "Described early last century as a distinct species, later downgraded to a subspecies, and then lumped together with the western lowland gorilla for many decades, this unique gorilla population on the Nigeria-Cameroon border was recently resurrected to the level of subspecies as a result of new research," according to John F. Oates, primatologist with Hunter College - CUNY. Oates added, "With numbers only in the low hundreds, the Cross River gorilla jumps immediately to the top of the conservation priority list, we hope we can appreciate its distinctiveness and enact conservation action on its behalf in time."

During the last century, scientists described close to 200 new primate taxa, or about a third of all known living species and subspecies. In the Neotropics alone, 19 new species have been described since 1980 and more than 10 newly-discovered monkeys await formal description.

Earlier this year, CI released a report on the most endangered primate species stating that no primate species were lost during the 20th century. However, this same report also warned that a growing number of prosimians, monkeys and apes were on the brink of extinction. This view was confirmed by participants at the Orlando workshop, who concluded that, since IUCN released its most recent Red List of Threatened Animals in 1996, the number of critically endangered and endangered primates has grown from just over 90 to more than 130. Several have not been seen in the wild in recent years.

"We've arrived at a critical time for the world's primates," said William Konstant, deputy chair of the Primates Specialist Group. "While we know some species very well indeed, the ecology and behavior of others remains a mystery, and some appear to be disappearing before our very eyes. When numbers of individuals drop to the low thousands and low hundreds, there's certainly no time to waste. The results of this workshop, especially those that identify distinct populations whose habitats and numbers may be shrinking, will help us set more realistic priorities for conservation action."

The researchers plan to incorporate this analysis in preparing a Primate Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the 21st Century, which will be released at the International Primatological Society in Adelaide, Australia in January, 2001.

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