In January 2006, scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society were in the forests of Tanzania searching for a grayish, tree-dwelling primate that had been identified in photographs as a new species the previous summer.
Half a world away, in a laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Assistant Professor Link Olson and undergraduate biology major Kyndall Hildebrandt were looking at DNA test results that pointed to an even more notable finding.
The monkey wasn’t just an example of a new species; it belonged to a new genus.
“A new genus in any living mammal group is noteworthy,” said Olson, who also serves as the curator of mammals at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. “Finding a new genus in the best-studied group of living mammals is a sobering reminder of how much we have to learn about the planet’s biodiversity.”
This is the first time in 83 years that scientists have identified a new genus of living African primate. A paper detailing the discovery is slated to be published in the journal Science on June 2, 2006 and appears today in the online edition of the journal, Science Express.
The monkey was dubbed Rungwecebus kipunji for its home range on Mt. Rungwe in Tanzania. Scientists first described the kipunji in 2005 and noted that it differed in appearance and behavior from other known species of monkey. They first classified it in the genus Lophocebus, which includes three other species of monkeys called mangabeys. However, that classification was based only on field observations and photographs.
In August 2005, a farmer found a monkey matching the description of the kipunji dead in a trap and turned the carcass over to Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Tanzania and Bill Stanley of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The monkey was sent to the Field Museum, which then sent muscle tissue samples to Olson for genetic analysis. In the meantime, Stanley and Yale University anthropologist Eric Sargis began examining the animal’s physical characteristics.
Genetic evidence showed that the kipunji is more closely related to baboons in the genus Papio than to members of the genus Lophocebus. However, both field observations and analysis of the animal’s physical characteristics revealed multiple differences between the kipunji and baboons. It could not be classified in either the genus Papio or Lophocebus, hence the birth of the new genus Rungwecebus.
The authors agree that having a specimen of the animal to study allowed them to correctly classify it. Scientists who first described kipunji as a new species were unable to examine a specimen.
“A picture may paint a thousand words,” Olson said, “but in the case of the kipunji those thousand words didn’t tell the whole story.”
Olson said the discovery is an example of what can be accomplished through international, interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists. Once genetic analysis showed something other than a new species, the team scurried to complete the paper for publication.
“This level of amicable cooperation was unprecedented for all of us who have done collaborative papers before,” Olson said. “Despite the frenetic pace, late night phone calls and constant revisions, tempers never flared. In hindsight, we’re all amazed we were able to pull this together.”
The project is also an example of the diverse research opportunities available to students at UAF, including undergraduates.
“Although much of the research conducted by UAF faculty focuses on regional themes, a growing number of scientists here are actively working on projects in other far-flung parts of the world,” Olson said. “In addition to being a leader in arctic and high-latitude research, UAF also provides opportunities for students to participate in studies all over the world.”
Hildebrandt worked alongside Olson to analyze the kipunji’s DNA, though she initially wasn’t privy to the nature of the study, and is acknowledged for her work in the Science paper.
“It’s a really nice opportunity for undergraduates here,” Hildebrandt said. “The professors are always extremely helpful. If you are interested in a project they will help you get involved in it.”
Undergraduate research experience is valuable to students, whether they go on to graduate work or they enter the workforce, OIson said. “It’s one thing to learn about science in a lecture; it’s another to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty doing it.”
Other co-authors on the paper include Daniela DeLuca, Noah Mpunga and Sophy Machaga of the Wildlife Conservation Society. The research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Alaska INBRE program, the Alaska Foundation and the University of Alaska Museum of the North.