When Eric Sargis first saw a photograph of an unusual monkey that biologists discovered in 2005, he didn't doubt that it represented a new species. But it wasn't until one of the unusual monkeys had been trapped by a farmer in Tanzania that he was convinced it warranted further investigation.
In 2006, Sargis, a professor of anthropology and curator of mammalogy at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, was part of the team that discovered that the creature was not only a new species, but an entirely new genus of primate — the first discovered since the 1920s.
Four years later, the team's discovery is making headlines again, with the monkey named as one of the top 10 new species discovered in the past decade in a new BBC documentary, produced in conjunction with Conservation International, called "Decade of Discovery."
The Kipunji monkey, whose scientific name is Rungwecebus kipunji, is predominantly a tree-dwelling monkey known to live in only two remote locations in Tanzania. It has medium grey-brown fur, with off-white fur on its stomach and tail and a black face. Its unique "honk bark" was one of the distinguishing factors that led to its discovery as a new species.
Naming the new species based solely on a photograph was controversial, Sargis says, because almost every species on the planet is associated with a representative "voucher specimen" — an actual specimen of the animal that researchers have collected (also known as a type specimen). It wasn't until Sargis and the rest of the team, led by Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Tanzania, were able to study the anatomy and analyze the DNA of the monkey found by the farmer that they realized it represented an entirely new primate genus.
"It was very exciting to name a new primate genus, and it's fantastic that it's considered one of the decade's top 10 new species," Sargis said. "But for me, it was the conservation implications that were the most significant aspect of naming this new genus."
With only 1100 individuals counted during the last census, the Kipunji is critically endangered. In 2010, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) named it as one of the 25 most endangered primates on the planet.
Because the Kipunji lives in only two small highland forest regions in Tanzania, Sargis points out that it's critical those habitats be protected in order to ensure the animal's survival — something that Davenport has worked tirelessly to do, notes the Yale professor. One of the two regions, Mount Rungwe (after which the monkey was named), recently received Nature Reserve status from the Tanzanian government.
"So there is hope that these critically endangered primates will be protected," Sargis says. "This is certainly the most satisfying outcome of our ongoing research on Rungwecebus kipunji, which highlights the importance of voucher specimens in taxonomic studies and conservation biology."
Some of the other top new species featured in the documentary include the pygmy three-toed sloth discovered off the coast of Panama in 2001, a small shark that "walks" across the ocean floor on fins, and a three-foot-wide red jellyfish found nearly 10,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean's surface.
Read the original story about the discovery.
See the full list of BBC's top 10 new species of the decade and check out a slideshow of some of the other creatures featured in the documentary.
— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin