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Indonésie : découverte d’une nouvelle espèce d’orang-outan

Voilà une nouvelle qui a de quoi réjouir la communauté scientifique, plus souvent habituée aux disparitions qu’aux découvertes de nouvelles espèces animales. Des scientifiques ont en effet annoncé dans les colonnes de la revue américaine Curent Biology la découverte d’une nouvelle espèce d’orang-outan sur l’île de Sumatra, en Indonésie. La population de ce nouvel animal est cependant faible et en fait d’office un des grands singes les plus menacés d’extinction de notre planète.

“Ce n’est pas tous les jours qu’on trouve une nouvelle espèce de grands singes, ce qui rend cette découverte très excitante”, explique Michael Krutzen, de l’université de Zurich en Suisse. Il s’agit en effet de la première nouvelle espèce de grands singes confirmée par la science depuis 1929 et les bonobos de la République démocratique du Congo.

“Les grands singes comptent pourtant parmi les espèces animales les plus étudiées au monde”, précise Erik Meijaard, membre de l’université nationale australienne d’où est partie la découverte. C’est en effet en 1997 que des chercheurs de cette université ont mis à jour les premiers indices de cette population de 800 individus, qui vivent isolés dans la région de Batang Toru (au nord de Sumatra).

C’est sur le squelette d’un mâle adulte, tué en 2013, que les scientifiques observent les premiers indices de cette nouvelle espèce baptisée Tapanuli. Certains traits du crâne et des dents apparaissent en effet comme unique, comparativement aux autres orangs-outans.

“Nous avons été surpris de voir que les caractéristiques du crâne étaient vraiment différentes de ce que nous connaissions jusqu’alors de ces grands singes”, indique Matt Nowak, primatologue du Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP).

C’est finalement une analyse du génome de 37 orangs-outans, effectuée par les chercheurs allemand de l’université de Zurich, qui confirmera l’existence des Tapanuli et révèleront leur évolution. Il semblerait en effet que ces singes se soient séparés de ceux de Bornéo il y a quelques 3 millions d’années avant d’évoluer génétiquement il y a dix ou vingt-mille ans.

“Les orangs-outans de Batang Toru semblent être les descendants directs des premiers orangs-outans qui avaient migré d’Asie continentale et constituent de ce fait la plus ancienne lignée de ces singes”, précise Alexander Nater, de l’université de Zurich.

L’habitat des Tapanulis est aujourd’hui limité à quelques mille kilomètres carrés de forêt, et la faible population de 800 individus sont victimes de la chasse illégale. “Si seulement huit de ces 800 animaux restant étaient tués ou retirés du groupe chaque année, l’espèce pourrait disparaître. Sans des mesures rapides pour protéger leur habitat forestier qui se réduit rapidement, ces orangs-outans pourraient disparaître en quelques décennies”, met en garde Matt Nowak.

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