New monkey is most unique since swamp monkey in 1923
WCS news release
May 11, 2006

Recently discovered monkey species is most unique since swamp monkey in 1923

A new monkey species discovered last year by scientists with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups is now shown to be so unique, it requires a new genus — the first one for monkeys in 83 years, according to a study published in this week's Science. But conservationists warn that quick action is needed to protect the monkey's high-altitude forest home from illegal logging and hunting, or the species may soon vanish.

The monkey, first described by WCS scientists who found it in Tanzania last year, was initially believed to be related to mangabeys.

However, DNA work published in this recent study reveals that the species is truly unique, marking the first new genus for a living monkey species since Allen's swamp monkey in 1923. The new genus, Rungwecebus, (pronounced rung-way-CEE-bus) refers to Mt. Rungwe, where the monkey was first observed. Perhaps 500 remain in the wild.

"The discovery of a new primate species is an amazing event, but the discovery of a new genus makes this animal a true conservation celebrity," said lead author of the study, Dr. Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "The scientific community has been waiting for eight decades for this to happen, and now we must we move fast to protect it."

The monkey, known locally as a "kipunji" (pronounced kip-oon-jee) is restricted to the Highlands region of Tanzania, an area severely threatened by logging, according to Davenport. To save this unique landscape, WCS is calling for action from the world community to protect this region from further degradation. WCS has also set up a website dedicated to the protection of the species:

The Highland Mangabey. Photo by Dr Tim Davenport.
The Highland Mangabey was the first new monkey species discovered in Africa in more than 20 years. Its natural habitat is threatened by logging, hunting and unmanaged resource extraction. If you are interested in making a contribution to help protect this new species and its unique habitat, please visit the WCS Kipunji Fund.
"It would be the ultimate irony to lose a species this unique so soon after we have discovered it," said noted primatologist Dr. John G. Robinson director of WCS's International Programs. "This is a world treasure and as such, we urge the world community to protect it."

The monkey is brown, with 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 scientists who first described it. It stands about 3 feet tall (90 cm). 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. Co-authors of the study include scientists from the Field Museum, Yale University and the University of Alaska Museum.

Global team of scientists describes new genus of African monkey: First in 83 years
Yale University News Release

New Haven, Conn. — Thanks to a globe-spanning collaboration and an animal found in a farmer's cornfield in Tanzania, a new genus of living monkey has been characterized, marking the first such discovery in 83 years, according to a report this week in Science Express.

The new African monkey, Rungwecebus kipunji, was first described scientifically last year based only on photographs. At that time, scientists placed the reclusive monkey, which has only been found in two remote locations in Africa, into the genus Lophocebus, commonly known as mangabeys. Shortly thereafter, one of these monkeys was caught and died in a farmer's trap.

With the first real specimen at hand, a team of scientists, organized by Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Tanzania, was able to closely examine the monkey's physical characteristics and analyze samples of tissue on a molecular level. Their research has concluded that Kipunji, the common name given the monkey, belongs to an entirely new genus.

"This is exciting news because it shows that the 'age of discovery' is by no means over," says William Stanley, a co-author of the study and Collection Manager in the Division of Mammals at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which now houses the world's only specimen of this forest-dwelling monkey.

The Highland Mangabey. Photo by Dr Tim Davenport.
"This was an amazing collaborative effort," said Eric Sargis, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale, and co-author on the study. While the assignment of the monkey's genus was initially based on previously described characteristics and how it looked in photos, with an actual specimen to study, experts in anatomy and molecular classification joined the study. The skeleton and soft tissues were analyzed at the Field Museum. "Only by uniting information from several sub-disciplines were we able to conclude that Kipunji represents a new genus."

"I was very skeptical of the need for a new assignment when I first saw a photo of the animal -- because it looks like a mangabey," said Sargis, an expert in the characteristics of primates. "But such appearances have been misleading in the past."

The DNA of this monkey strongly suggests that its closest relatives are the widespread savanna baboons in the genus Papio, even though it lives in forest and spends much of its time in trees. Once Sargis was able to examine the specimen and compare it to other Old World monkeys, he was convinced that it could not be placed in Papio.

Link Olson, a co-author and Mammals Curator at the University of Alaska Museum, used markers from mitochondrial DNA which is inherited only through mothers to offspring, Y-chromosome DNA that is passed only from fathers to sons, and a chromosomal gene that is passed to all offspring to identify the placement of Kipunji on the family tree of primates. Given the results of the molecular and anatomical analyses, the team placed Kipunji in its own genus Rungwecebus, named after Mt. Rungwe where Kipunji was first observed.

These authors agreed that the ability to study an actual specimen was critical to identifying Kipunji's lineage. Authors of the paper describing Kipunji as a new species were unable to do that. "A picture may paint a thousand words," noted Olson, "but in the case of Kipunji, those thousand words didn't tell the whole story."

"To find, in the 21st Century, an entirely new species of large monkey living in the wild is surprising enough. To find one that can be placed in a new genus, and that sheds new light on the evolutionary history of the monkeys of Africa and Eurasia as a whole is truly remarkable," said John F. Oates, Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College and a renowned primatologist. "This discovery also reinforces the view that mountains in southern Tanzania have played an important ¬ and until recently unexpected ¬ role as a refuge for many species long extinct elsewhere."

This global collaboration reflects the speed and value of the new phenomenon of conducting research across many time zones. Sargis was the first to receive Davenport's emails from Tanzania. "I would edit the manuscript, add comments, or write new sections and send the manuscript out for Stanley in Chicago and Olson in Alaska to make their changes," said Sargis. "Then, before going to bed I would take another pass at it, after Olson added his comments." Over the course of a few hectic weeks, the authors exchanged over 500 e-mails.

"Finding a new genus of the best-studied group of living mammals is a sobering reminder of how much we have left to learn about our planet's biodiversity," notes Olson.

As the human population continues to increase, along with their impact on all ecosystems and on other species, it is particularly important when a new group of animals so closely related to humans is identified. It is especially surprising — in a world so carefully explored — when new animal species any larger than a rat are found living in the wild, not just as unstudied specimens in museum cabinets.

These monkeys have light-to-medium grayish brown fur, with off-white fur on the belly and the end of their long, curled-up tail. They have a "crown" with a very broad crest of long, erect hair. Adults make a distinctive, loud, low-pitched honk-bark. An omnivore, Kipunji eats shoots, leaves, flowers, bark, fruit, lichen, moss and invertebrates.

Kipunji are predominantly tree-dwelling monkeys and are known to live in only two high-altitude locations: the Rungwe-Livingstone forest and Ndundulu Forest Reserve in Tanzania. They live in social groups of 30-36 adult males and females. Less than twenty such groups are known to exist.

"Although Rungwecebus is endangered, there's still an opportunity to conserve this reclusive animal," said Sargis. "This is particularly encouraging to a paleontologist like me because I often study mammals that have been extinct for millions of years."

Co-authors on the paper included Daniella W. DeLuca, Noah E. Mpunga and Sophy Machaga of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Tanzania, all leading experts on the ecology and behavior of Kipunji. The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Alaska INBRE program and the Alaska Foundation, as well as the University of Alaska Museum.

This article features two modified news releases from WCS and Yale University.

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