Conservation news

Bird market photo yields an unknown monkey species in Indonesia

  • Two photos taken in Jakarta’s notorious bird market suggest that Indonesia’s forests may be hiding a previously undocumented species of monkey.
  • The photos spurred researcher Francesco Nardelli to embark on a five-year survey of zoos, museums, and the Internet to determine whether the primate was in fact new to science.
  • Nardelli named new species Presbytis johnaspinalli in honor of John Aspinall, a conservationist who founded the Howletts and Port Lympne Wildlife Parks in the U.K. and the Aspinall Foundation.
  • One primatologist reached by Mongabay cautioned that the primates used for the description could have been bleached by traders to increase their market value.

Author’s note 10/23/15: the status of the golden-crowned langur is now being challenged by some primatologists, who say the photographed individuals used for the description may have been bleached by traders. See the note at the bottom of the story.

Two photos taken in one of Indonesia’s notorious bird market suggest that country’s forests may be hiding a previously undocumented species of monkey.

The photos, which showed a langur or leaf monkey with distinctive coloring, including a black face outlined by gold hair, spurred researcher Francesco Nardelli to embark on a five-year survey of zoos, museums, and the Internet to determine whether the primate was in fact new to science. His findings are published in the current issue of International Zoo News.

“From 2010 to 2015, comparative data from other Presbytis species were obtained by inspecting and photographing captive animals in the UK, in Indonesia and in the United States, and by observing skins and skulls in museum collections,” Nardelli told Mongabay. “For the uniformity of traits amongst the photographed subjects and dissimilarity of most of the same traits with other Presbytis species, the golden-crowned langur Presbytis johnaspinalli should be considered species nova.”

Nardelli named the primate Presbytis johnaspinalli in honor of John Aspinall, a conservationist who founded the Howletts and Port Lympne Wildlife Parks in the U.K. and the Aspinall Foundation.

“Aspinall’s longsighted and innovative conservation methods permitted, among innumerable success stories, the establishment outside Indonesia of breeding colonies of several langur species,” he said, noting that Aspinall helped conceive the first Sumatran rhino conservation project. Nardelli served as director of the project from 1984 to 1992.

Juvenile syntype of the Golden-crowned langur (Presbytis johnaspinalli). Nardelli’s description is based on five photographs of eleven captive individuals of “different age and, likely, sex.” Courtesy of Nardelli 2015.

The discovery — if confirmed as a new species [see note below] — would boost the number of known Presbytis langur species to 18. All live in Southeast Asia — specifically the forests of Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra, Java and Borneo, which are among the most threatened on the planet due to conversion for plantations and agriculture, fire, and poaching.

Because all of Nardelli’s research was conducted in museums, zoos, and markets, the new langur has never been documented in the wild. Nardelli isn’t publicly disclosing information about its distribution until steps can be taken to ensure its protection.

“Taking into consideration the unknown yet likely endangered status of the species I would not yet like to disclose this information to the general public although would readily do so to specialists,” he wrote. “Recent discoveries or rediscoveries have caused controversy for the haste to indicate the name of locality before checking the status of the species. For example, news of the finding the last wild population of Bornean (aka Sumatran) rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni) included the locality name (WWF 2013), a fact that provoked both pleasure and criticism.”

While its distribution isn’t explicitly known, the potential new species would almost certainly be endangered and likely facing significant threats, according to Nardelli.

“Likely to be isolated geographically, Presbytis johnaspinalli needs swift research and conservation measures implemented,” he wrote. “Langurs are poached for meat but moreover to collect bezoars (calcoli), a sort of stones formed in their stomach, highly valued in Traditional Chinese Medicine.”

Syntypes of Golden-crowned langurs (Presbytis johnaspinalli). Nardelli writes that Presbytis johnaspinalli is “essentially distinguished from other known Presbytis on the basis of pelage colour and morphology; orange golden-yellowish hair around the face, on the chest and abdomen; black on upper parts, limbs and tail.” Courtesy of Nardelli 2015.

He added that simply naming the species would help its conservation cause, reprinting a quote from a 2002 paper by Janice S. Golding and Jonathan Timberlake.

“International conventions and national or regional legislation concerning threatened or endangered animals specify the species or subspecies name of the animals that the law intends to protect,” Golding and Timberlake. “Thereafter, protection goes with the name rather than the endangered species itself.”

Nardelli concluded that while new species discovery typically involves killing individuals to take as specimen, the photos and other documentation are enough to propose a novel species.

“Today, however, in a time of rapidly improving electronic storage of data and communications, such a process is not strictly required and color photographs, like those shown here, can secure the existence of new species,” he wrote. “The procedure also fulfills the philosophy of modern naturalists aimed at the conservation of animal species avoiding scientific killing.”

Syntypes of Golden-crowned langurs (Presbytis johnaspinalli). Courtesy of Nardelli 2015.

If confirmed as a new species, the golden-crowned langur won’t be the first mammal to be described after a “discovery” in a local market. In 2005, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society famously described the Laotian rock rat or kha-nyou (Laonastes aenigmamus) after it was spotted in a hunter’s market in Central Laos. It turned out the species was well-known locally — it was only scientists who were unaware of its existence. Similarly in 2012, scientists identified a new flying squirrel — Biswamoyopterus laoensis — after it was first noted in a market in Laos.

Indonesia’s bird markets are particularly well-known for their large volumes of animals, many of which are collected from the wild, including the furthest reaches of the archipelago. Birds, mammals, and reptiles often kept in cramped, crowded conditions, making these markets a target of criticism by animal welfare groups and public health officials.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that the photos were taken in Jakarta’s bird market. It was revealed on 10/23 that the photos were taken in Ngawi in 2009.

Author’s note (10/23/15 05:10 Pacific Daylight Time): One primatologist reached by Mongabay after this story was posted cautioned that the “new” primate could have been bleached to increase its market value. Traders in some markets have been known to adulterate the coloration of animals, including primates, to make them seem more exotic. We’ll provide updates as more information becomes available.

(10/23/15 13:00 Pacific Daylight Time) – Vincent Nijman, a primatologist at Oxford Brookes University, sent the following response to Mongabay. Nijman worked on Presbytis and Trachypithecus monkeys for over two decades, both in the field and in museums. Over this period, Nijman has been doing research in the wildlife markets of Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia.

1. All the photos can be traced down to the same location, the same time, and quite possibly, the same trader. That is, the first photographs were taken in Ratu Soerja market in Matingan, east Java (on the border with central Java) in the summer of 2009, and on 6 November, the same year, they were confiscated there. I found some more photos in addition to the ones in the paper, but these also can be traced back to the same location. Despite what you wrote in your article (not sure what the source was) none of them have been photographed in Jakarta bird markets or anywhere else.

2. I am almost certain now that it is not a Presbytis but a Trachypithecus, most likely, the ebony langur T. auratus from Java. Interestingly, Nardelli noted that that the individuals lacked the “characteristic cone or crest shaped hair on the head” as seen in other Presbytis species. I agree and note that this hairdo is typical for ebony langurs.

3. I have seen these dyed (or bleached, I am not sure) langurs before, both in the markets in east Java and in rescue centers in east Java in the early 2000s. This dyeing I have seen in Trachypithecus langurs, some Presbytis langurs and slow lorises (making it difficult to identify what species we are actually dealing with) as well as other wild-caught mammals (eg civets). Birds and domesticated animals can also be dyed but here it is often the whole animal that changes color. It is done to increase the ‘novelty factor’ and, ultimately, the price.

(10/23/15 14:00 Pacific Daylight Time) – Nardelli’s response.

1. The crown’s hair is pointing straight up. In Trachypithecus the same is mostly directed forward.

2. In over ten years of work in Indonesia I never came across artificially colored mammals. To consider is the face, ears and hands skin color is uniformly black or blackish on all different age individuals. In one individual a V shaped, light grey hair pattern is visible on dorsum. I would exclude Presbytis comata fredericae for its rarity.

(10/23/15 23:00 Pacific Daylight Time) – Borneo Future Director Erik Meijaard

It really is quite remarkable. Indonesia is so good at faking, they even fake new species. If they can do about 100 fakes a year, the extinction crisis would soon be over. I am sorry for Dr Nardelli, but it seems very likely that he and his colleagues got things wrong. Think about it, what are really the chances that 200 years of zoology had overlooked a very distinctive looking new primate species. We are not talking a new rat, like the recently discovered Sulawesi hog-nosed shrew rat, or obscure bird, but a leaf monkey, which, considering the distribution of leaf monkeys, could only derive from the most densely settled parts of Indonesia. So, having seen a great number of dyed or bleached animals in Indonesian animal markets before, I think Dr Nijman has probably got things right and unfortunately we are not looking at a new species.

(10/26/15 05:00 Pacific Daylight Time) – Francesco Nardelli

My paper on the new species of langur is written according to International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (1999) and description is based on five color photos of eleven individuals, a method accepted by ICZN. The several characteristics I described with data, well support my opinion that the Langur is species nova. I repeat that in more than ten years in Indonesia I never saw artificially altered specimens in markets, zoos or elsewhere. Hence the idea of “painted langurs” never crossed my mind. Thus it should be substantiated by live specimen(s) to be found soon to check first of all if artificially colored and their DNA. Things standing in doubt a finalized research in Indonesia it is become of the essence.

CITATION: Francesco Nardelli. A new Colobinae from the Sundiac region: The Golden-crowned Langur Presbytis johnaspinalli, sp. nov.. International Zoo News Vol. 62. No. 5 (2015), pp. 323-336