Genetic study sheds light on evolution and may help prevent extinction of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey

A team of scientists from the German Primate Center (DPZ), led by Dr Christian Roos, have completed genetic studies on all five snub-nosed monkey species, providing crucial information for the conservation of these rare primates.

The Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, discovered by a team from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) and People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF) in 2010, has been of particular interest, given recent efforts in developing a conservation plan and protected areas within Myanmar, to ensure the survival of the species.

Previous scientific descriptions were based on information from Dr Thomas Geissmann’s taxonomic description, but the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, or Rhinopithecus strykeri, is now confirmed as its own species.

Dr Christian Roos, with colleagues from Switzerland, USA, China, Myanmar and Vietnam analysed the DNA of all five snub-nosed monkey species currently known to science. The genetic material was isolated from faecal samples and skin fragments, cut out from museum exhibits. “We can indeed confirm that the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey is a new species,” says Christian Roos.

“Even more exciting, however, is the information we gained about the evolutionary history of the species as it allows us insights into primate evolution and speciation,” Roos continued.

Biogeographic processes, like the raising of the Himalayas altered the landscape profoundly and created new physical and climatic barriers that certain species could not cross anymore. Therefore, gene flow was hampered and new species developed. However, the barriers were not constant over geological times and species started mixing again, resulting in hybridisation, that is the production of offspring between separate species. “Hybridisation is much more frequent than generally thought, making it necessary to adjust our species concept profoundly,” said Roos.

Next steps for ensuring the survival of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey have now been put in place. The current political situation in Myanmar provides a unique opportunity for science and nature conservation but poses all the threats that come with accelerated economic and population growth. “This historic chance for democracy and development may also be a crossroad for nature conservation,” says Frank Momberg, FFI’s Myanmar Programme Director. With economic growth leading to an increase in roads being built and more forests being cleared, “there is also the one-time chance of implementing protected areas, which the government has now agreed to, and to conduct research that was hampered for years. Myanmar is only now opening to the world.” Momberg continues.

Yet to be classified on the IUCN Red List, it is expected the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey will be listed as Critically Endangered, with only an estimated 260 to 330 of the species in existence and all closely related monkeys classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered.

Hunting for food and traditional medicine as well as accelerated deforestation are the main threats for these enigmatic animals. In reaction to the discovery and population estimates, the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry and FFI organised an international workshop for the conservation of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey in February this year.

The outcomes of the workshop were very positive, with the Myanmar government now planning to protect the species under Myanmar law and to protect its habitat by creating a new national park in the Imawbum mountain range. In addition, FFI has started a community-based conservation programme on the ground, which provides alternative livelihoods to local indigenous hunters and operates a community ranger programme to protect the species.

Previously thought to only inhabit areas of north-eastern Myanmar, a recent discovery by Liu Pu, a forest guard for Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, has now provided the first evidence that the species also exists in China. The discovery and conservation of this new primate species is of great interest for both the government of China and the government of Myanmar.

China’s State Forestry Administration is in the process of organising a field survey of the snub-nosed monkey’s distribution and population in Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. It also has showed a willingness to work with Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry to initiate a conservation programme.

FFI and BANCA would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of the European Union, Halycon Fund, Arcus Foundation, and Australia Zoo for supporting the conservation work of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey.

Click here to read the published paper in PLoS ONE