Zoo hopes DNA reveals mystery ape origins
This page contains a series of four articles on the mystery ape
Genetics research has begun at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo on fecal samples collected this summer from the rare apes to determine if they make up a new species, a new subspecies or some form of hybrid -- possibly a mix between a chimpanzee and a gorilla.
"It's a new, mystery ape and we are doing the DNA fingerprinting to find out more," said Dr. Lee Simmons, zoo director.
The apes, which stand five to six feet (1.8-meters) tall and have feet nearly 14 inches (36 centimeters) long, were first documented last year by primatologist Shelly Williams in a forest in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They have bodies similar to those of gorillas, but generally the facial characteristics of a chimpanzee. Williams said the animals sleep on the ground at night like gorillas, but eat a fruit-rich diet like chimpanzees.
"I can't speculate yet as to what they are. Their behavior is so unusual. It's a puzzle. ... I feel like Dr. Doolittle in the land of Oz," said Williams, who has captured some video of the animals but no photographs.
Because of their size and elusiveness, the apes have no predators -- not even poachers hunt them, Williams said. With no fear of lions, leopards or hyenas, the large animals hoot at the moon as it rises and sets, which is extremely unusual for apes, she said.
"The people are very afraid of them. They call them the 'lion killers' because they are huge creatures," Williams said. "The folklore is they could kill lions."
Williams collected fecal samples from the animals' nests before returning in June from her most recent trip to the Congo. In August, she delivered those samples to the Omaha zoo, where they are being compared with the DNA of captive gorillas, bonobos (pygmy chimps), and chimps, said Ed Louis, a conservation geneticist leading the research at the Omaha zoo.
"If this ends up being a new species of ape, that would be amazing. Even if it's a hybridization, that would be fascinating," Louis said. "However, at this point we don't even know what we're dealing with."
Biologically, it is possible for a chimpanzee and a gorilla to have viable, fertile offspring, Williams said.
The DNA analysis is expected to take months. However, it may be impossible to determine the apes' entire ancestry without getting a sample of blood or tissue.
Louis plans to join Williams on her next trip to the Congo, likely in November, to collect more specimens for DNA analysis.
"Without getting your hands on the animal, it's difficult to say what it is," said Louis, who in recent years has identified several new species of monkey-like lemurs in Madagascar through his genetic research.
Williams did collect hair from the apes' nests, but none of the samples included follicles, which are needed for extracting cells for DNA research. She also made molds of the apes' large footprints found in mud near the nests. The footprints were nearly two inches (five centimeters) larger than the average length of a gorilla's foot, which is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) long.
What makes the gorilla-like apes even more unusual is that the closest gorillas documented in that part of Africa are thousands of miles (kilometers) away, Williams said.
"The possibility is there that this is a new species due to isolation," she said.
The last discovery of a great ape was in 1902 when mountain gorillas were found in the Virunga Volcanoes, where the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda meet.
Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, a Washington-based organization that focuses on biodiversity conservation, has assisted in the discovery of six new species of monkeys and marmosets in the Brazilian Amazon. He is not ruling out the possibility that the apes Williams is studying make up a new species.
"If this turns
out to be a new species of ape, it would be one of the big discoveries
of primatology," he said. "It has been so long since there has
been a distinct discovery."
So-called "mystery apes" native to the forest deep in the Democratic Republic of Congo may represent a new species, subspecies, or even a hybrid between a chimpanzee and a gorilla, experts said recently.
The animals stand five to six feet tall and have feet that, at 14 inches long, are two inches longer than those of the average gorilla. While their bodies resemble those of gorillas, their faces are generally flatter than other apes and have the characteristics of a chimpanzee.
Seeking answers to the big 'mystery ape..
Scientists hope that DNA analysis being done at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska will tell them more about the genetic origins of these mysterious primates.
On her last trip to Africa, primatologist Shelley Williams collected fecal samples from the newly discovered animals to be used in genetic fingerprinting.
DNA isolated from the fecal samples is being compared to the DNA of captive gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. The analysis is expected to last more than a month.
The local people call the mystery apes "lion killers" because they are very large.
Unlike chimpanzees, who sleep in trees to avoid predators, these apes sleep in big ground nests. They do not have to worry about attracting enemies, so they hoot at the moon when it rises and sets-unusual behavior for apes.
The mystery apes consume a fruit-rich diet, similar to the diet eaten by chimpanzees.
Since the closest gorillas documented in that region of Africa live thousands of miles away, scientists think the mystery apes may be a new species that arose in isolation.
© 2003 Animal
News Center, Inc.
The detective story began in 1908 when a Belgian army officer returned home with several gorilla skulls from near the town of Bili on the Uele River and gave them to the Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. In 1927 the museum's curator classified the skulls as a new subspecies of gorilla, Gorilla gorilla uellensis.
Intrigued by the subspecies, Colin Groves, now an anthropologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, examined the skulls in 1970 and determined that they were indistinguishable from western gorillas, one of the two known species of gorilla. No further specimens of this gorilla from Bili have since been found.
In 1996, Swiss-born, Kenya-based wildlife photographer and conservationist Karl Ammann embarked on a quest to rediscover the mysterious gorillas. To date, Ammann has not found the gorilla. But he has collected a wealth of information including skulls, ground nests, hair and fecal samples, footprints, and, most recently, photographs of what appears to be a chimpanzee that behaves like a gorilla.
<-- A remote camera trap captured this shot of a "Bondo mystery ape" in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most experts believe the unusual band of apes are giant chimpanzees that display gorilla-like behavior. One countervailing theory, however, holds that the band represents a new subspecies of great ape. Photograph copyright Karl Ammann
Scientific analysis of this data is still being conducted. Ammann awaits the results before making an official announcement about the finds. Meanwhile, he continues to recruit scientists to study the case.
Shelly Williams, an independent primate behavior specialist in Atlanta, Georgia, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology, spent two months in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo last year trying to determine the identity of these apes. She said "at the very least, we have either a new culture of chimps that are unusually large or hybrids with unusual behaviors."
Williams and Groves will meet Ammann in Kenya this month before traveling to the Congo to conduct further studies on the mysterious apes.
Ground Nesting Chimp?
Since Ammann launched his quest, he has led expeditions into the Bili forest in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo where the original skulls were recovered. On his first trip, Ammann recovered a skull which had a pronounced ridge on its forehead characteristic of gorilla. The rest of the measurements link the skull to that of a chimpanzee.
For the next several years civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo made travel to the Bili forest difficult. Ammann recruited a bush meat hunter from Cameroon to visit and survey the area. The hunter returned with photographs and reports of gorilla ground nests in an area north of Bili.
In 2000, Ammann returned to the area described by the bush meat hunter with a group of ape researchers. Although they did not find a live ape, the group did stumble across several well-worn ground nests in swampy river beds.
Ground nests are characteristic of gorillas. Chimpanzees are thought to prefer to sleep in trees. However, an analysis of feces found in the nests suggests that whatever left them was eating a diet rich in fruits, a diet characteristic of chimpanzees, not gorillas.
Other evidence collected from the site includes hair samples, which have been sent out to various laboratories for DNA analysis. The initial results indicate they belong to a chimpanzee. All of this evidence is causing the researchers to believe that what Ammann has found is a chimpanzee that behaves like a gorilla.
"It is a chimpanzee," said Esteban Sarmiento, a functional anatomist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who traveled to the region with Ammann in 2000. "There are presently three recognized subspecies of common chimpanzee Pan troglodytes and it could represent a fourth subspecies or change our present understanding of where to draw the divisions between subspecies."
Local hunters in the region added to the mystery when they told Ammann and his colleagues about two kinds of chimpanzees in the region. Normal chimps, so-called "tree-beaters," are easily killed with poisonous arrows when they feed in trees.
Another, large chimpanzee seldom climbs trees and does not succumb to the poison arrows shot by the hunters. Called "lion killers," these big chimpanzees flee through the thick forest and disappear when shot at by hunters.
Evidence for these giant chimpanzees collected by Ammann includes a photograph of a cadaver alongside the hunter that killed it and casts of some large footprints. The pronounced ridge, called a sagittal crest, on the skull that Ammann found in 1996 is thought to be formed to support large jaw muscles, an indication of large body size.
"Giant chimpanzees occasionally occur here and there in the central and eastern subspecies, but evidence so far indicates that Karl [Ammann] may have a population of giants in his area," said Groves. "Presumably their giantism is relevant to their ground nesting behavior."
This group of what appear to be a distinct culture of ground-nesting chimpanzees is the now focus of Ammann's research. "Work has started on habituating one of the ground nesting chimp groups. This is done by provisioning them with sugar cane," he said.
This habituation will allow the researchers to document this new culture of chimpanzee as the researchers await the results of nuclear DNA analysis to determine if what they have is indeed a new subspecies of chimpanzee or simply a unique culture. Either way, the scientists are intrigued.
"Discovering an isolated group of apes exhibiting unusual cultural behaviors is just as important as identifying new DNA profiles. That's why continuous observation, habituation, and surveying are so important," said Williams.
Additionally, researchers have not yet given up on the possibility of finding gorillas in the area.
"I would think
there is a strong possibility that south of Bili on the other side of
the Uele River there may be gorillas, and this would seem an important
area to turn our attention to," said Sarmiento.
Researchers Bethan J. Morgan and Chris Wild found the troop during a wildlife survey that is part of the Zoological Society of San Diego's effort to establish a national park and ecological reserves in Bakossiland, a mountain region of Cameroon.
Morgan, who is with the society's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species, and Wild, head of the center's Bakossiland field station, found the apes while searching for drills, which are the world's largest monkeys.
The team briefly sighted seven gorillas in the Ebo forest, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Wednesday.
Alan Dixson, director of conservation and science at the Zoological Society, said researchers will conduct genetic testing of hairs recovered from the gorillas' nests to determine whether they are part of a gorilla subspecies.
The discovery will
be formally announced to the scientific community in a paper to be published
in the International Journal of Primatology, Dixson said.
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