Scientists have discovered Africa's first new species of monkey in more than 20 years. The discovery, described in the May 20 issue of the journal Science, was made by two research teams working independently in the Tanzanian part of the Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests Region.
First sighted in the Ndundulu Forest Reserve by Richard Laizzer and observed by research biologist Trevor Jones as field assistants for a research project managed by University of Georgia primatologist Carolyn Ehardt, the monkey was then identified as a new species by Ehardt and Tom Butynski, who directs Conservation International's Eastern Africa Biodiversity Hotspots Program.
Funded in part by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the team was conducting research into the ecological requirements and behavior of the Critically Endangered Sanje mangabey (Cercocebus sanjei). While aiming to expand knowledge of biodiversity in this region, the scientists had no idea quite how successful they would be.
Since named the Highland mangabey (Lophocebus kipunji), the newly discovered monkey is about 3 feet long from head to toe and distinguished from other mangabeys by the color of its coat, its long, upright crest, and its off-white tail and chest. It also has a unique vocalization called the "honk-bark."
By extraordinary coincidence, the discovery of the new species had also been made a few months previously at a site 370 kilometers away in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands.
In January 2003, Tim Davenport and colleagues of the Wildlife Conservation Society had heard rumors about a shy and atypical monkey known as Kipunji in interviews with local hunters in villages around Mount Rungwe.
Given its cryptic nature, however, and the thick secondary forest that is its habitat, it was not until December 2003 that the WCS team clearly observed the monkey and identified it as a new species. Laizzer and Jones were to make their discovery in July 2004, but it wasn’t until October 2004 that the news was shared between the teams.
When Ehardt and Davenport became aware in October 2004 of the parallel discoveries in their two projects, the two teams joined forces to write the article for Science.
"There is a strong message here: Not only is so much of the world’s biodiversity severely threatened, but we still do not know what fascinating and important species may be lost before they can be discovered," Ehardt said. "A finding such as this can only encourage us to redouble our research and conservation efforts."
With support from CEPF, Trevor Jones is now continuing research on the Highland mangabey in the Udzungwa Mountains, evaluating the threats it faces to enable best recommendations for its conservation.
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