Scientists discover new monkey species, declare it almost extinct

Callicebus caquetensis, a cat-sized species of titi monkey, has has grayish-brown hair and a bushy red beard. It faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.

Javier Garcia/AP
A new species of titi monkey, Callicebus caquetensis, was found in the Colombian Amazon region near the borders with Ecuador and Peru by Drs Thomas Defler, Marta Bueno from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and undergraduate student Javier García with support from Conservation International.

A scientific expedition to the Colombian Amazon has revealed a new species of monkey.

The species of titi monkey (Callicebus caquetensis) is a cat-size creature that is critically endangered because of rapid habitat loss and its small population. The discovery was announced today by the environmental nonprofit group Conservation International.

Research from 30 years ago hinted that a previously unknown primate species might be living in Colombia's Caquetá region, near the Ecuadorian and Peruvian border, but violence and insurgent fighting kept the area off limits for decades. It was only in 2008 that scientists Thomas Defler, Marta Bueno and student Javier García of the National University of Colombia proved the rumors true.

García, a native of Caquetá, was finally able to travel to the upper Caquetá River three years ago, and, using GPS, searching on foot, and listening for calls, he found 13 groups of the new species. Titi monkeys (or zogui zogui as they are called in Spanish) have one of the most complex calls in the animal kingdom and use it every morning to mark their territory.

"This discovery is extremely exciting because we had heard about this animal, but for a long time we could not confirm if it was different from other titis. We now know that this is a unique species, and it shows the rich diversity of life that is still to be discovered in the Amazon,” said Defler.

C. caquetensis has grayish-brown hair, but does not have a white bar on its forehead as many other species of Callicebus do. Its long tail is stippled with grey, and it has a bushy red beard around its cheeks. Unlike most primates, Caquetá titi monkeys (and probably all titi monkeys) form life-long, monogamous relationships, and pairs are often seen sitting on a branch with their tails entwined. They usually have one baby per year. As a new baby arrives, the parents force the oldest baby to leave to allow them to focus on the newborn (this is based on information collected from closely related species). The families of this species stick together in groups of about four individuals and can be seen in the trees close to some of the main rivers of Caquetá.

This newly discovered species is struggling to survive. It is estimated that less than 250 Caquetá titi monkeys exist — a healthy population should be in the thousands. The main reason for this small number is the degradation of the forests in the area, which have been felled for agricultural land. It is very dangerous, and sometimes impossible, for these animals to cross grassy savannah or barbed wire fences to reach other patches of forest.

Both the very small population size and the fragmented habitat should qualify the species for a Critically Endangered (CR) species classification, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria, which means that it faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.

"This discovery is particularly important because it reminds us that we should celebrate the diversity of Earth, but also we must take action now to preserve it," said José Vicente Rodríguez, head of science at Conservation International in Colombia and president of the Colombia Association of Zoology. "When world leaders meet later this year in Japan for the Convention on Biological Diversity, they must commit to the creation of many more protected areas if we want to ensure the survival of threatened creatures like this in the Amazon and around the world."

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