Saturday, December 15, 2012

Slow Loris From The Borneo Jungle Are Actually Four Distinct Species

While studying the elusive nocturnal primate the slow loris in the jungles of Borneo, an international team of scientists discovered an entirely new species. Detailed in the American Journal of Primatology, the team analyzed the distinctive facial fur markings to reveal the existence of this new species. Another two species that were previously considered sub-species are also being officially recognized as unique because of this study.

“Technological advances have improved our knowledge about the diversity of several nocturnal mammals,” said Rachel Munds from the University of Missouri. “Historically many species went unrecognized as they were falsely lumped together as one species. While the number of recognized primate species has doubled in the past 25 years some nocturnal species remain hidden to science.”

Closely related to the lemur and the bushbaby, the primate genus Nycticebus – slow loris – is found across South East Asia, from Bangladesh and China’s Yunnan province to the island of Borneo. Rare among primates for having a toxic bite, the loris is rated as Vulnerable or Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The primate secretes the toxin from glands in its elbow, which the animal then licks and mixes with their saliva. They use the toxin when they bite and also to coat the fur of their young, as a possible defense against predators. The toxin is strong enough to cause anaphylactic shock in humans.

The slow loris is recognized for their unique body and face coloration. Such fur patterns are often used to distinguish between species, however, nocturnal species are cryptic in coloration and have less obvious external differences than diurnal species. The team focused their research on the distinctive coloration of Borneo’s slow loris. The primates’ faces appear to have a mask, with the eyes being covered by distinct patches with varying shapes of caps on the top of their heads.

Facemask differences are what led to the recognition that there were four distinct species rather than one; N menagensis, N. bancanus, N. borneanus and N. kayan. N menagensis is the original species, and N. kayan is the new, previously unrecognized, species. N. kayan is found in the central-east highland area of Borneo and takes its name from the major river of the region, the Kayan. Munds and her colleagues use museum specimens, photographs and live animals, examining significantly different body sizes, fur thickness, habitats and facial markings to parse out the four species from the original one.

“In the first study to quantify facial mask differences we have recognized three new species of slow loris, two of which were recognized as subspecies at some point in the past, but are now elevated to species status, and one previously unrecognized group.” said Ms Munds. “This finding will assist in conservation efforts for these enigmatic primates, although survey work in Borneo suggests the new species are either very difficult to locate or that their numbers may be quite small.”

The distinction of these four species strongly suggests there is more diversity to be discovered in the Borneo jungles and surrounding islands, which include the Philippines. Much of this territory is threatened by human activity, however, so the possibility of further slow loris diversity existing in small and fragile ranges raises urgent conservation effort questions.

“The pet trade is a serious threat for slow lorises in Indonesia, and recognition of these new species raises issues regarding where to release confiscated Bornean slow lorises, as recognition by non-experts can be difficult,” said Professor Anna Nekaris, from Oxford Brookes University, in a press statement by journal publisher Wiley.

A person might think that a venomous primate with two tongues would be relatively safe from the pet trade, but you would be wrong. The slow loris is a big-eyed, teddy-bear faced animal, making it a target for illegal pet poachers throughout the entire range of Southeast Asia and the surrounding islands.

Dividing the loris into four distinct species has a good side and a bad one, according to Munds. On the bad side, four species instead of one means that the risk of extinction is greater than previously thought. On the good side, four smaller, more at risk species could garner more attention in conservation circles.

“Four separate species are harder to protect than one, since each species needs to maintain its population numbers and have sufficient forest habitat,” said Munds, MU doctoral student in anthropology. “Unfortunately, in addition to habitat loss to deforestation, there is a booming black market demand for the animals. They are sold as pets, used as props for tourist photos or dismembered for use in traditional Asian medicines.”

Despite the illegal pet trade, slow lorises are not domesticated and are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Munds argues that keeping the lorises as pets is cruel and that truly domesticating them is impossible.