Conservation news

Myanmar’s new langur species is ‘very beautiful,’ but critically endangered

Popa langur at Mount Yathe Pyan. Image by Aung Ko Lin / FFI.

  • Researchers recently described a new primate species, the Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa), in Myanmar.
  • The new species is one of about 20 known langur species in the Trachypithecus genus, and a close cousin to Phayre’s langur (T. phayrei).
  • The species is considered to be critically endangered, with only about 200 to 260 left in the wild, according to researchers.
  • Scientists and conservationists are working to protect the species through various measures, including outreach and awareness campaigns.

There’s a new kid in town: a gray-furred langur with white-rimmed eyes and a fluffy head has just been announced as a new primate species. The Popa langur (Trachypithecus popa), named after an extinct volcano near its habitat in Myanmar, is causing a stir, not only for its novelty as a species, but for its charismatic appearance.

“It looks like a bespectacled uncle,” Frank Momberg, director of program development for the Asia-Pacific region at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), an international conservation organization, told Mongabay in an interview. “It makes it very cute, and very beautiful.”

Popa langur is newest langur species in the genus Trachypithecus. Image by Thaung Win.

The discovery of the Popa langur actually took place in the laboratory. A team of international researchers, led by Christian Roos of the German Primate Center, a nonprofit research institute, compared tissue samples from various museum specimens, including a 100-year-old specimen from London’s Natural History Museum, with fecal samples from captive and wild animals. After several years of genetic analysis, the scientists published a paper in Zoological Research identifying the Popa langur as a distinct species in the genus Trachypithecus.

 “[For] more than 100 years, we had specimens from this new species lying in the museum,” Roos, lead author of the study, told Mongabay in an interview. “But nobody really looked at these specimens in detail … [and] it was always overlooked as something different.

There are about 20 known langur species in the Trachypithecus genus. A close cousin to the Popa langur is Phayre’s langur (T. phayrei), but there are some morphological differences between the two, said Roos.

While the discovery of the Popa langur is being celebrated, this newly described primate is already in trouble. It’s estimated there are only 200 to 260 individuals spread across four separate populations. Threats include hunting pressure, as well as habitat destruction and fragmentation. While the species has yet to be assessed by the IUCN, an organization that documents conservation statuses of threatened species, it would already be considered “critically endangered” if using IUCN criteria, according to the researchers.

A Popa langur was recently described as a new species by a team of researchers. Image by Aung Ko Lin / FFI.

Many other langur species are also threatened with extinction, including Delacour’s langur (T. delacouri), which is critically endangered, and the Shortridge’s langur (T. shortridgei) and Hatinh langur (Trachypithecus hatinhensis), which are endangered.

The biggest, and perhaps safest, population of Popa langurs is located in Mount Popa National Park in the Mandalay region of central Myanmar, says Roos. However, the region only has about 26 square kilometers (10 square miles) of suitable habitat for the species, and therefore may not be able to sustain a growing population, he said.

“There are habitat limitations for them to thrive and recover its population, because obviously, it has suffered from hunting and … the whole area around Mount Popa has completely turned into agriculture. So it’s an isolated forest, and not connected to anything else anymore,” he said.

A second population is found partially in the Panlaung-Pyadalin Cave Wildlife Sanctuary in Myanmar’s Shan state, but overlaps with a limestone concession in an adjacent area.

The largest population of Popa langurs is in Mount Popa National Park, Myanmar. Image by Aung Ko Lin / FFI.

“[This region] requires immediate attention, due to the sanctuary’s limited human and financial resources for protection of the species from hunting and agricultural encroachment, the direct and indirect threats caused by a cement company,” Momberg said in an email. “FFI has provided comprehensive recommendations for the mitigation of threats and for a biodiversity off-set plan, which includes the protection and monitoring of the new Langur species, as well as long-term financial support for improving the management of the Panlaung–Pyadalin Cave Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Momberg says FFI will help implement local conservation efforts, including awareness and outreach campaigns, working alongside the Myanmar Forest Department. FFI is also supporting further research activities in the area, including projects focused on the Popa langur.

“Myanmar is still an exceptional place for new discoveries,” Momberg said. “Myanmar has the largest remaining forest area in mainland Southeast Asia. Many recent new species discoveries of plants and animals across all taxa highlights that Myanmar is a global hotspot for biodiversity.”

Citation:

 Roos, C., Helgen, K. M., Miguez, R. P., Thant, N. M., Lwin, N., Lin, A. K., & Momberg, F. (2020). Mitogenomic phylogeny of the Asian colobine genus Trachypithecus with special focus on Trachypithecus phayrei (Blyth, 1847) and description of a new species. Zoological Research, 41(6). doi:10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2020.254

Banner image caption: Popa langur at Mount Yathe Pyan. Image by Aung Ko Lin / FFI.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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