There is a third species of orangutan and somehow nobody noticed

By Aylin Woodward

The hominid family just got a little bigger. A new orangutan species has been found hiding in the forests of Sumatra. The Tapanuli orangutan is only the third orangutan species, and the seventh non-human great ape. But they may not be around for long: there are only 800 of them and they live in an area smaller than London.

For years, researchers have recognised two species of orangutan living in Indonesia: the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran orangutan (P. abelii). Both are critically endangered.

In the late 1930s there were reports of a population of orangutans in Tapanuli, in the Batang Toru area, south of the range of Sumatran orangutans, but the claims were never fully investigated. The Tapanuli population was only rediscovered in 1997 by Erik Meijaard at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Initial genetic studies suggested the population was unique, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nearest orangutan neighbours were 100 kilometres away. Then in 2013, a male Tapanuli orangutan called Raya died of his wounds after a conflict with local villagers. Finally, scientists were able to study a Tapanuli specimen and compare it to its Sumatran and Bornean brethren.

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