FAU Researcher Part of Team that Discovers New Monkey Species in the Democratic Republic of Congo (continued) “With this discovery, Dr. Detwiler and her research partners have made a monumental contribution to science,” said FAU President Mary Jane Saunders. “FAU is proud to support her, not only for her accomplishments in her field, but also for the inspiration that she brings to our students. The molecular anthropology laboratory that she is establishing at FAU will offer many opportunities to our undergraduate and graduate researchers.”
The first lesula found was a young captive animal seen in the town of Opala in 2007 by survey teams of the Lukuru Foundation, which was undertaking the first systematic inventories of large mammals of this landscape in the Congo. The young monkey bore a resemblance to the owl-faced monkey, a species absent from the central Congo forest block and only known to occur far to the east on the right bank of the Congo River. Its coloration, however, was not that of the owl-faced monkey and was unlike that of any other known species.
Over the following three years, a collaboration of scientists from the Lukuru Foundation, Florida Atlantic University, Hunter College-CUNY, New York University (NYU), Columbia University, Yale University, and the Wildlife Conservation Society were able to locate the lesula in the wild, determine its genetic and anatomical distinctiveness, and make initial observations of its behavior and ecology.
Detwiler’s roles in the discovery of the lesula were that she was the corresponding author for documentation of the new species and she led the genetic analyses with colleagues at NYU. Tissue samples were shipped from the Congo to the molecular anthropology lab at NYU where Detwiler was conducting her Ph.D. research at the time.
The genetic analyses were essential in determining that the lesula is a new species of monkey. Along with the anatomical and behavioral observations in the field, her results conclusively demonstrated that the lesula is genetically distinct from its closest relative, the owl faced monkey.
Detwiler traveled to the Congo this past summer to see the species in its habitat, an area that covers about 6,500 square miles between the Lomami and the Tshuapa Rivers in central Congo.“After searching for several days in the most densely populated lesula habitat, I finally got a glimpse of the species on the last day in the forest,” said Detwiler. “After the excitement of confirming the new species in the genetics lab, the chance to see the lesula in its natural habitat was especially gratifying. The fact that we are just finding a new species of primate in this area of the Congolese rain forest in the 21st century indicates that there is still so much to learn. We are very lucky that we found the lesula while there is still time to save it, and the discovery fuels the drive to raise awareness about and support for conservation of this incredibly diverse ecosystem.”
In addition to the lesula, the Lukuru Foundation’s surveys discovered that the forest is the home of other rare and endangered species, including the okapi, Congo’s endemic forest giraffe, the bonobo, as well as 10 other species and subspecies of primates. One of Detwiler’s current graduate students will join researchers from the Lukuru Foundation next summer to continue field study of the lesula.n forest in the 21 st century indicates that there is still so much to learn. We are very lucky that we found the lesula while there is still time to save it, and the discovery fuels the drive to raise awareness about and support for conservation of this incredibly diverse ecosystem.”
The discovery of the lesula confirms the importance of Central Congo’s landscape, from the Tshuapa River through the middle Lomami Basin to the Congo-Lualaba, as a center of forest biodiversity in Africa. The lesula is seriously threatened by uncontrolled commercial bush meat hunting that has expanded into the species’ range over the past decade.
“The challenge for conservation now in the Congo is to intervene before losses become definitive,” said John and Terese Hart, who led the project and direct the Lukuru Foundation. “We are asking people not only to stop hunting in the area that will become a national park, but also to change their hunting behavior and to not hunt the lesula and other endangered species in the adjoining buffer zones as well. We have seen initial willingness, but there will have to be economic alternatives.”
A significant area of the new species’ known range is now proposed as a new protected area, the Lomami National Park. This will be the first national park established in the Congo through consultation with local communities from the outset.
For more information, contact Kate Detwiler at email@example.com or 603-236-2769.
Images: (top) Lesula drawing courtesy of Kimio Honda; (middle) John Hart, Pablo Ayali and Kate Detwiler at Obenge base camp; (bottom) River crossing in the Congo