There isn’t one square meter of the world that hasn’t been mapped and imaged. Yet, against all odds, weird new animal species are discovered all the time. Usually these take the form of a tiny insect or maybe a deep-sea coral. But sometimes we find something bigger...
Just this week it was reported that a camera trap in Burma finally captured a new species of snub-nosed monkey. Camera traps don’t physically “capture” animals, of course, they just take their photos. Sadly, this species first became known to science when a male was taken in a more traditional manner in 2010: a local hunter killed it and ate it while a researcher from the conservation group Flora and Fauna International was visiting the area. How could a monkey the size of a largish child go unrecognized for so long? Well, the place it lives is remote, mountainous, and Burma (officially known as Myanmar) is immensely secretive.
Camera trap photo: credit FFI/BANCA/PRCF
Besides, it wasn’t unknown to the people who live in the area. They call it mey nwoa, meaning “the monkey with the upturned face”. Now that it’s come to the attention of science we know that not only is it a unique type of snub-nosed monkey (now known as Rhinopithicus strykeri), it is also critically endangered. Fewer than 300 probably survive at high elevations and in deeply forested parts of just one Burmese state. Wholesale logging and deforestation have taken a huge toll on this part of the world, but it’s possible that the discovery of R. strykeri might bring conservation efforts to the region that were lacking before.
Indeed, teams from the Primate Conservation Programme are already studying the critter, with some pointers from the people that live near by. Usually rainy weather is bad news for field researchers, but according to local guides this is the only time the monkeys are easy to find. They are normally very quiet, but during heavy rains water gets up their (practically non-existent) noses and causes them to sneeze. So, like tracking birds by their songs, the conservation group listened for sneezing.
Reconstruction photo: credit BBC, Dr Thomas Geissmann
It’s still a mystery why all species of snub-nosed monkey (the others live in China and Vietnam) lack a true nose. One theory suggests that it’s an adaptation to the cold mountains they inhabit, like their luxurious coats. Exposed fleshy noses are often subject to frostbite so it might make more sense to do without. Hopefully, now that we’ve found this primate, we can keep it around long enough to appreciate a few more of its secrets.