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New monkey species discovered in the Congo forest

Known as a lesula, it has a blonde, grizzled mane and a vibrant blue bum.

To locals, this cool monkey is known as a lesula – it also goes by the names kifula and tou – but to a team of researchers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States, it’s the world’s newest monkey species.

Unique to the DRC and discovered rather serendipitously – the first lesula researchers spotted was actually a young girl’s wandering pet – they’re defined by their blonde, grizzled manes and join a genus of vibrantly coloured monkeys more commonly known as the guenons.   

Researchers have given the medium-sized, slender monkey the formal name, Cercopithecus lomamiensis, after the river that marks the edge of their habitat in the Lomami basin.

The lesula calls home a portion that’s roughly 17,000 square kilometres in size – about as big as Lake Ontario – and it’s also teeming with several other known species of guenons.

“You can walk in the forest, look up in a fruit tree and find at least three different species – even on the same branch – eating,” Kate Detwiler, study co-author and anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University in the United States, told Science-Fare.com.  “They’ve figured out a way to divide themselves ecologically enough that they can coexist, but somehow not outcompete each other.”

The lesula may hang out in the trees, but researchers say part of their evolutionary success story may be that they’ve learned to venture down from them – they believe it was part of ours.

“We’re not sure what the environmental pressure was, but, it’s down eating the herbaceous vegetation that’s on the forest floor,” she said. 

When researchers analyzed a portion of lesula DNA to confirm it was a new species, they found its closest relative’s actually the owl-faced monkey, a species that lives more than 50 kilometres away and across two rivers – the Lomami and Congo. 

Like the lesula, it’s learned to take advantage of the spoils on the forest floor and it seems the only thing they really share with them visually, is their bright blue bum – scientists call it the perineum. 

“When the forest was expanding and contracting – possibly during the different ice ages in the Pleistocene – pockets of forest separated populations for a long enough time that they diverged,” Detwiler said. 

They estimate the two monkeys split approximately two million years ago and researchers say the forest boundaries may have been particularly responsive to a changing climate.

“In parts of the forest, the base is this white sand and it doesn’t produce a productive habitat for a lot of species,” Detwiler said.  “It’s this area where they have to get through – or get around – to get to the good eating forest.”

Since splitting from their closest relative, the skeleton of the lesula has changed too – a third indication that it’s a unique species.  In addition to having larger eye sockets than the owl-faced monkey, researchers say the lesula also has several teeth, in both the front and back of the mouth, that are larger too.

As soon as the lesula was found to be a new species, it was added to the list of protected animals in the DRC, along with the bonobo and elephant.

The study’s lead author and conservation biologist with the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, John Hart, told Science-Fare.com this is because bushmeat’s become a commodity – they’ve even identified a crude supply chain to get it from the forest to the city markets.  

According to a 2009 report – also by the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation – the price of beef, on average, was more than twice the cost of bushmeat.  Chicken – the cheapest alternative to bushmeat – was still 40 per cent more expensive than it. 

In a region of the world that’s plagued with food security issues, the price makes sense.

 “As long as domestic sources of meat are not available or are very expensive – relative to bushmeat – we’re going to see bushmeat continue to be exploited to the very end,” Hart said. “What will save the fauna of the Congo is the development of agriculture and husbandry, so that people have other sources of food.”

The monkey was discovered in a region of the DRC known as TL2 – for the three rivers that cut across it – and since it's only recently opened to researchers, Hart says several creatures are currently being studied to see if they’re new species too.

The new monkey was described in the journal, PLOS ONE.

Check out the full report here.


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