Researchers have identified a new primate species that lives in the forests of central Myanmar, an agile tree dweller with a worm-like face framed by a shock of immobile gray hair.
Popa langur – named after an extinct volcano with its largest population, about 100 individuals – has been around for at least a million years, according to a study describing the find, which was published on Wednesday in Zoological Research.
However, with only 200 to 250 left in the wild, experts will recommend that the leaf-eating species be classified as “critically endangered”.
“Just described, Popa langur is already facing extinction,” says senior author Frank Momberg, a researcher at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), in Yangon.
Throughout its range, the monkey is threatened with startling chalk-white rings around the eyes of “hunting, habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation caused by agricultural encroachment and illegal or unsustainable timber extraction,” the study found.
The first evidence of the new species did not come from nature but the back rooms of the London Natural History Museum, where genetic analysis showed that samples were collected more than a century ago when Burma was a British colony was something new.
Samples of Popa poop collected by Momberg and his colleagues in the forest matched them from the museum and showed that the previously unknown langur still roams in nature.
The relaxed monkeys were finally captured on film in 2018 and revealed their distinctive fur coloring and markings.
Trachypithecus popa, or abbreviated T. popa, has a gray-brown and white belly with black hands and wrists that look a bit like gloves.
The flexible tail – almost one meter – is longer than the body, with the creature weighing about eight kilograms.
“Further field investigations and safeguards are needed immediately and will be carried out by FFI and others to save the langurs from extinction,” said Ngwe Lwin, a primatologist with FFI’s Myanmar program.
Researchers at the German Primate Center in Goettingen, Germany led the research.
There are more than 20 species of langur in the world, several of them critically endangered.
The most famous among them is the gray or Hanuman langur, named after the wandering monkey god who is prominent in the Hindu epic Ramayana.
In the new study, an international team of more than 30 researchers also decoded the broader evolutionary history of the broader group or genus, which included langur by sequencing mitochondrial genomes of 41 specimens.
They found that four distinct groups – spread across Asia from Bangladesh and Bhutan in the west to Vietnam and southern China in the east – differed from about four million years ago.
At least two dozen primates have been discovered since the turn of the century, many through genetic analysis that reveals that species similar in appearance were actually distinct.
Primates are divided into two subordinates. Strepsirrhines – from Greek for snotty nose – include lemurs and lorisides.
The second suborder, haplorhines, or “dry-nosed” primates, include the tarsiers, monkeys, and langurs.
There are more than 20 critically endangered primate species in the world today.