Two monkeys

Two monkeys

The lesula is new to science, but was well known by local inhabitants.

Image: John Hart

Scientists have announced the discovery of a new species of monkey in central Africa. It’s only the second new species of primate to be discovered on the continent in 28 years.

Actually, ‘new’ and ‘discovered’ aren’t completely accurate. While the monkey, Cercopithecus lomamiensis, may have only just come to the attention of scientists, it has been known to locals for years. A group of scientists on an expedition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a country in central Africa) saw a pet monkey in a village. They had never seen a monkey like it, but were told by local hunters that it was a lesula. The scientists then went looking for wild lesula, and eventually observed both living and dead specimens.

This was in 2007 – why has it taken so long to announce the lesula as a new species? Identifying a new species is tricky, and there are a few things taxonomists (scientists who classify organisms) must do to determine if a species is previously unknown to science.

In the past, taxonomists mainly analysed an animal’s physical features, such as its size, colour and bone structure. These features were compared to those of existing species, and if they were different enough, a new species would be declared.

An organism’s physical features, or morphology, are still considered to determine if it is a new species, but nowadays taxonomists have another tool: DNA testing. Even if two animals look similar, taxonomists can determine if the specimens are different enough to be separate species by comparing their DNA.

These analyses, both of morphology and DNA, take time. Taxonomists want to be confident they have a new species before making an announcement. This is why it took years between scientists first spotting a lesula and announcing it as a species.

New species are constantly being discovered by scientists. Sometimes these are the results of field expeditions into the wilderness to identify new and existing species. Sometimes, as in the discovery of the lesula, they are found hiding in plain sight.

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One response

  1. Carol Saab Avatar
    Carol Saab

    Cute monkey!

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