Long-haired, Long-lost Cousins

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The latest find is named the "Highland Mangabey",a long-haired forest primate first discovered on the flanks of the 10,000 ft (2961 m) volcano Mt. Rungwe and in the adjoining Kitulo National Park. Credit: WCS

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, working in conjunction with other partners, have discovered Africa’s first new species of monkey in over 20 years, marking the third monkey WCS scientists have found in the last six months. The new species is described in the current issue of Science.

The latest find is named the "Highland Mangabey" (Lophocebus kipunji), a long-haired forest primate first discovered on the flanks of the 10,000 ft (2961 m) volcano Mt. Rungwe and in the adjoining Kitulo National Park. Last December, WCS researchers found a new species of macaque in India, followed by a new variety of titi monkey in Bolivia.

"This discovery proves that there is still so much to learn about the more remote and less well-known areas of Tanzania, and Africa as a whole. Having been so involved in the creation of the Park, and the conservation of Mt Rungwe, it has been very exciting for us to help reveal more of their secrets," said Dr. Tim Davenport, who directs the WCS Southern Highlands Conservation Program and who led the team of Noah Mpunga, Sophy Machaga and Dr. Daniela De Luca who found the monkey.

Some months later, the same species was independently discovered in Ndundulu Forest Reserve in the Udzungwa Mountains as the result of University of Georgia primatologist Dr. Carolyn Ehardt’s research project, which is focused on conservation of the critically endangered Sanje mangabey endemic to these mountains. First sighted by Richard Laizzer and observed by research biologist Trevor Jones, while working as field assistants for the project, the monkey was then identified as a new species by Ehardt and by Dr. Tom Butynski, who directs Conservation International (CI)’s Eastern Africa Biodiversity Hotspots Program. When Ehardt and Davenport became aware in October 2004 of the parallel discoveries in their two projects, the two teams then joined forces to write the article for Science.

"This exciting discovery demonstrates once again how little we know about our closest living relatives, the nonhuman primates," said Russell A. Mittermeier, who chairs the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN-The World Conservation Union’s Species Survival Commission. “A large, striking monkey in a country of considerable wildlife research over the last century has been hidden right under our noses."

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Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, working in conjunction with other partners, have discovered Africa’s first new species of monkey in over 20 years
Credit: WCS

The new arboreal mangabey is brown, with a head and body length of about 3 ft (90 cm). It is characterized by a long, erect crest of hair on its head, elongated cheek whiskers, an off-white belly and tail, and an unusual call, termed a ‘honk-bark’ by the authors. The monkeys occur as high as 8,000 ft (2450 m) where temperatures frequently drop below freezing; its long coat is probably an adaptation to the cold. The taxonomic name of the species, Lophocebus kipunji, recognizes the monkey’s local Kinyakyusa name (pronounced kip-oon-jee) used by a few hunters around Mt. Rungwe. The highland mangabey is extremely rare and critically endangered, with an estimated total population of between 500 and 1,000 animals. Also noted by Davenport, the Southern Highlands forests, including those of Mt Rungwe and Kitulo, are severely degraded by illegal logging, and without prompt action the animal’s future is in jeopardy.

On the other hand, the Ndundulu Forest Reserve is in good condition, but there is concern that the population of the highland mangabey in this forest is very small and limited in distribution. Ehardt observes that, "With the addition of another threatened species of primate to those species previously documented, the Udzungwa Mountains are arguably the most important site in Africa for primate conservation. The Udzungwas remain a focus for conservation ecology research, as should the Southern Highlands, and we must continue to strongly support Tanzania’s conservation efforts." Butynski fully agrees, adding that, "This discovery is especially important because it not only expands the diversity of the genus Lophocebus from two to three species, it extends the geographic range of the genus 500 miles (800 km) to the south, thereby contributing much to our understanding of primate diversity, evolution, and biogeography." As a result of their research in the Udzungwas over much of the last decade, Ehardt and Butynski have been calling for extension of the Udzungwa Mountains National Park to include the surrounding forest reserves. The presence of the new mangabey strengthens arguments for the improved protection of the Ndundulu Forest.

"Clearly this remarkable discovery shows that there are still wild places where humans are not the dominant species," said Dr. John G. Robinson Senior Vice-President and Director of International Conservation Programs for WCS. "This new species of monkey should serve as a living symbol that there is hope in protecting not only wild places like Tanzania’s Southern Highlands, but the wonder and mystery they contain."


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