University researcher helps to identify new genus of monkey

Published: 27 June 2006 at 14:12

A monkey recently described for the first time by a Junior Research Fellow based at Anglia Ruskin University’s Environmental Sciences Research Centre has just been assigned its own genus.

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The news is of extreme scientific significance because it is the first genus of primate to be added to the official ‘taxonomic’ lists for over 80 years.

The classification of the kipunji monkey of Tanzania in East Africa is based on work conducted by Trevor Jones and his collaborator Tim Davenport from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

In 2005, the scientific community was shocked when an international team of primatologists, led by Trevor Jones, described kipunji as the first new species of monkey to be discovered in Africa for 25 years. The story took a further twist in May 2006 when a team in Tanzania, led by Tim Davenport, created a new genus for this remarkable primate which was the first to be revealed in 80 years.

Trevor was amazed to hear the news,

“It was very exciting when we realized that we were looking at a new species – the news that we actually discovered a new genus is stunning.  Since the news has broken, the discovery has caught the attention of many key environmental science groups from around the world.”

The kipunji is a large arboreal monkey, restricted to two sites in the highlands of southern Tanzania, 350km apart. They live in groups of 14-36 animals, traveling and feeding in the tall canopy of mature highland forest and feed primarily on fruits but will also eat leaves, flowers, bark, lichen and invertebrates. They have brown fur, a white tail and a striking erect crest on their head which almost caused them to be named ‘punky monkey’.

It was while studying another monkey in Tanzania, with a team from the USA, that Trevor first came across the kipunji.  A few months later he heard that biologists from the WCS Southern Highlands Conservation Programme, led by Dr Davernport had made the same discovery on Mount Rungwe over a year previously. They joined forces and the first description of the monkey was published.

Numbering just a few hundred in total, the team took the decision to not to take a monkey for a specimen but rather used observations, photographs and sound recordings in order to confirm that it was a new species. On the available evidence it was placed in the genus Lophocebus, and given the name Highland Mangabey.

Then in December 2005, a farmer killed a male kipunji when it ventured out of the forest and raided his cornfield. The specimen was given to Dr Davenport’s team in the USA who found it did not belong to the genus Lophocebus and that it was not even a mangabey. DNA testing showed that it had more in common with a baboon. The team decided that there was only one option left - to create a new genus. 

The monkey has now been given the scientific name Rungwecebus kipunji after the mountain which is its current stronghold.

Many questions remain and there is much work to be done, not least to understand why the kipunji are critically endangered. Funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and Fauna and Flora International, Trevor has recently completed a census of the population and found that the population for the genus is not expected to exceed 800 animals.

He plans to return to Tanzania in August to work with his international colleagues to develop and coordinate an ongoing research and conservation programme for Africa’s newest monkey.

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