A University of Georgia anthropologist is part of an effort that has discovered the first new monkey species found in Africa since 1984. Two research projects working independently in East Africa each discovered the “highland mangabey,” one in the Ndundulu Forest of the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania and the other in the southern highlands, 350 kilometers to the southwest.
UGA primatologist Carolyn Ehardt directs the project that made the discovery in the Udzungwas, where she has been conducting conservation research over the past decade.
Ehardt’s co-discovery was published last month in the journal Science. The co-discoverers include researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International.
“To discover a completely new species of monkey in this part of Africa is phenomenal,” says Ehardt, whose research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the WCS and other conservation donor agencies. “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. A finding such as this can only encourage us to redouble our research and conservation efforts.”
Although Ehardt’s early research focused on issues of social organization in captive groups of monkeys at the field station of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Georgia, she is now concentrating on the ecology and conservation of endangered primates and working at several field sites. Her primary current site is the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania, where there are a number of threatened primates. The Udzungwas are part of the Eastern Arc mountain “archipelago,” an area of East Africa recognized as a critically important biodiversity “hotspot.”
The Udzungwas are the last remaining place in East Africa with contiguous forest zone at an elevation of roughly 250 to 2,600 meters. There are a number of endemic primates in the Udzungwa forests, including the Sanje mangabey, the Udzungwa red colobus, and a recently discovered species of nocturnal dwarf galago.
With a strange call the researchers describe as a “honk-bark” and dramatic tufts of its brown hair sprouting from the sides and top of its head, the highland mangabey is not only rare, it is unique.
Dwelling in the trees of two Tanzanian forests-at altitudes up to 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) above sea level-the highland mangabeys are a hearty lot, enduring temperatures as low as 3 degrees Celsius below zero (27 degrees Fahrenheit) and seasonal rainfall that can total nearly 3 meters (9.5 feet).
From field observations and detailed photographic and audio recordings, the scientists have concluded that the highland mangabey is a little under one meter (three feet) long-two meters (six and one-half feet) including tail-and has long, brown fur (white on its chest and tail), and black skin.
The highland mangabey’s arboreal nature and black face with non-contrasting eyelids are characteristic of one of two known mangabey genera, Lophocebus, the mangabey genus most closely related to baboons. The species is believed by the researchers to number no more than a few hundred animals and will be classified as critically endangered, due to its limited distribution and the severe threats to its forest habitat.
The new species was first sighted by WCS conservation biologists back in 2003 during a survey on and around Mt. Rungwe, in the southern highlands of Tanzania. Hunters from surrounding Wanyakyusa villages had spoken of a shy monkey that they called “kipunji,” and the team caught their first glimpse of the new monkey in May. With no knowledge of the WCS team’s discovery in the southern highlands, researchers from UGA, CI, and the local national park were studying primates in the Udzungwa Mountains in 2004 as part of Carolyn Ehardt’s research on the conservation ecology of the critically endangered Sanje mangabey-a relation of the new monkey but in the other mangabey genus, Cercocebus. One of the goals of her project was to survey Ndundulu and acquire data for Sanje mangabey groups previously reported to be in this forest by ornithologists working in the region.
“My concern was that our previous surveys in Ndundulu had not produced any further sightings of the Sanje mangabey, which raised even more worry about its already dire conservation status,” says Ehardt.
It was in preparation for intensive work in Ndundulu that the highland mangabey was discovered in this forest and then identified as a new species by Ehardt and her CI colleague Tom Butynski. In the process of preparing the publication on the discovery, Ehardt learned, completely by chance, of the parallel discovery in the quite distant southern highlands. The research teams then pooled their observations to craft a more complete picture of the animal, which they have named Lophocebus kipunji in recognition of the local name used in the southern highlands.