New species of monkey found in Congo

Kristof Zyskowski, collections manager at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, examines a new species of monkey.
Kristof Zyskowski, collections manager at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, examines a new species of monkey. Photo by Kerri Lu.

A new species of African monkey has been discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Commonly known as Lesula, the new species of monkey — which feeds on fruit and vegetation — has a hairless face, muzzle and long, blond mane, according to a Sept. 12 journal article detailing the discovery. The articles are based on data collected by researchers affiliated with the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The seven Lesula specimens examined by the researchers are currently housed at the Peabody Museum, said study co-author Eric Sargis, Yale professor of anthropology and Curator of Mammalogy at the Peabody.

“It’s a great addition to the Peabody’s collection, because these [monkeys] are obviously very rare,” Sargis added.

First spotted by researchers in 2007, the Lesula inhabits the remote Lomami forest basin in central Democratic Republic of Congo. Research team leaders John and Terese Hart, senior scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society, have been conducting research in Congo since the mid 1970s. The first Lesula spotted by their team belonged to a local girl named Georgette, who adopted the monkey after bushmeat hunters killed its mother, said co-author Chris Gilbert, anthropology professor at Hunter College-CUNY. Data gathered for this study came from seven Lesula specimens — including Georgette’s — which the team obtained from hunters or found killed by predators in the wild.

Field researchers said the Lesula is difficult to examine because of its shyness. Despite its evasive nature, the Lesula is an animal well known to local hunters. Georgette’s monkey’s story is not unique — young Lesulas frequently end up as pets after their mothers end up as dinner, Gilbert said.

The Lesula has since been identified as a new species and given a taxonomic name — Cercopithecus lomamiensis. On their website, the Harts said that they as well as locals of the Lomami River Basin still prefer to use its local name. Now that the monkey has officially been named as a unique species, the Harts said they plan to use the discovery to draw attention to this poorly known part of Africa and ignite a more aggressive conservation effort to save the Lesula and other species inhabiting the Lomami river basin.

“You’ll hear [conservationist groups] say that if a species doesn’t have a name, you can’t save it,” said James Hanken, zoology and biology professor at Harvard University.

While animals are usually endangered by habitat destruction, the Lesula is under threat of bushmeat hunting. Gilbert said that a shortage of local meat sources causes hunters to use every available animal as a food source. Though the Lesula resides in a mostly intact forest, uncontrolled hunting puts pressure on animal populations in these areas, he added.

The criteria for identifying a mammal as a new species are very stringent — it took about three years to establish that this species was previously undocumented.

To determine the Lesula’s uniqueness, Sargis said, genetic and morophological studies were done by researchers at New York University and the Peabody Museum, respectively. Sargis said he compared the Lesula specimens to its closest relative, the owl-faced monkey,

“We have documentation of anatomical differences, genetic differences, vocalization, behavioral differences — it’s a really nice, comprehensive study to document that this population is indeed distinct,” Gilbert said.

Though the discovery of the Lesula is noteworthy, Hanken said several thousands of new species of organisms are discovered each year. He referenced a report from Arizona State University’s International Institute for Species Exploration which said that nearly 20,000 new species — 41 of them mammals — were discovered in 2011 alone.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Sargis said. “There’s probably a lot of new species in this region that haven’t been discovered yet.”

The Lesula is the second African monkey species to be discovered since the 1980s.

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