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A new primate has been discovered in Myanmar and named The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa). The new species was described after an extensive genetic and morphological study, crucially including a 100-year old specimen stored at London’s Natural History Museum.
The results of the genetic analysis were combined with data from specimens in other museums as well as from field surveys carried out by the German Primate Center (GMC) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) along with partner organizations in Myanmar to confirm the existence of the new species.
The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa) occurs in central Myanmar and is named after the sacred Mount Popa, which holds the largest population of the species with just over 100 animals. 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.
Altogether there are only an estimate of 200-250 animals of the new species, which live in four isolated populations in Central Myanmar. Throughout its range the langur is threatened by habitat loss and hunting, and therefore the research team recommends that the new species is already classified as critically endangered.
Trachypithecus is a genus of langurs 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, says, ‘It was quite a complex picture to begin with because previous work focused only on a few 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.’
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.
Roberto Portela Miguez continues, ‘The Museum’s specimen dates from 1913 and was collected by Guy C. Shortridge, British zoologist, who collected thousands of specimens during the early 20th century. 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.’
The genus Trachypithecus is the most species-rich and widespread among the Asian colobine monkeys. Species occur mainly in Southeast Asia, from Bhutan, Assam (India) and Bangladesh in the west, over Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to Vietnam and South China in the east, but also in large parts of the Sundaland region (Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo, Java and some smaller islands.
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, ‘The DNA analysis of museum specimens collected for the Natural History Museum in London more than 100 years ago has finally led to the description of this new species, confirmed also by samples collected from the field by FFI’s research team’.
Roberto Portela Miguez adds, ‘Sadly this is a bittersweet discovery due to the limited number of individuals left in the wild and 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.’
‘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 and the few other remaining populations.’
Ngwe Lwin, a primatologist with FFI's Myanmar program. ‘Additional field surveys and protection measures are urgently required and will be conducted by FFI and others to save the langurs from extinction’.
The study Mitogenomic phylogeny of the Asian colobine genus Trachypithecus with special focus on Trachypithecus phayrei (Blyth, 1847) and description of a new species is published in the journal Zoological Research and accessible here.
Notes to editors
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Natural History Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 / 07799690151 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Frank Momberg (FFI Director for Program Development, Asia – Pacific Region) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ngwe Lwin (FFI Myanmar Primatologist) Email: email@example.com
Christian Roos (Scientist, German Primate Center) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sylvia Siersleben (Communication, German Primate Center) Email: email@example.com
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