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New species of monkey identified in Congo

New species of monkey identified by researchers in lowland rainforests of central Congo

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 3:21am
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A new species of monkey has been identified in Africa, only the second time in 28 years such a discovery has been made on the continent.

The finding in the Democratic Republic of Congo is significant, as identification of mammals new to science is rare.

Lesula ( Cercopithecus lomamiensis) has a naked face and a mane of long blond hairs, and is described by the researchers who identified it as shy and quiet. It lives both on the ground and in trees in a 17,000 square kilometre habitat of the lowland rainforests in the centre of the Congo between the middle Lomami and the upper Tshuapa rivers. Its diet is mostly fruit and vegetation.

Dr John Hart and his wife Dr Terese Hart of Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History first saw the species in 2007 at the home of a primary school director, who was keeping a young female in the town of Opala. Later that year, the team found the species, which looks similar to the owl-faced monkey but has different colouring, in the wild. Genetic tests later verified it was a new species.

"This was a totally unexpected find, and we knew we had something unusual and possibly unknown when we first saw the animal. But it was not until we had the genetic and morphological analyses of our collaborating team that we knew we really had a new species," said the Harts.

The monkey lives mostly in small groups of one to five, and only one animal was seen on its own during eight encounters. In what they describe as an "exceptional" sighting, the researchers observed an apparent attack on one of the monkeys by a crowned eagle, which killed the female monkey.

There are already fears for the monkey despite its home in a relatively remote and underpopulated region, as it is hunted for bushmeat. The director who owned the captive monkey said he had acquired it after a family member had killed its mother in the forest. The researchers have provisionally categorised it as already vulnerable under the authoritative list of threatened species kept by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"The challenge now is to make the lesula an iconic species that carries the message for conservation for all of Congo's endangered fauna," said John Hart. "Species with small ranges like the lesula can move from vulnerable to seriously endangered over the course of just a few years."

The previous monkey to be discovered in Africa was the kipunji in Tanzania in 2003, nearly two decades after the last find, the sun-tailed monkey in Gabon, in 1984.