Rumors of Existence

Excerpt: Rumors of Existence
By Matt Bille
Fall 1995, Hancock House Publishers
Copyright 1995 by Matt Bille


Brazil houses the world’s largest tropical rainforest, and no one is surprised to learn there are still new species to be found there. But no zoologist would have predicted we’d find three new monkeys in the last decade alone.

The recent finds started with a new squirrel monkey, a two-pound creature presented in 1985 with the scientific label Saimiri vanzolinii. This primate inhabits a tiny territory, perhaps the smallest of any South American monkey, at the joining of the Amazon and Japura rivers in central Brazil.

The next discovery was made far from the squirrel monkey’s haunts and involved an even smaller creature known as the black-faced lion tamarin. This monkey, not much larger than a rat, was found on a coastal island named Superagui by two Brazilian scientists engaged in cataloging the local bird life. A fisherman described the black and gold monkey to the visitors, professors Maria Lucia Lorini and Vanessa Guerra Persson, and provided a skin. Lorini and Persson then found the live animals and, after a month of observing them in the wild, published their results in June 1990.

This colorful animal is also known today as the caissara monkey. The local fishermen, or caissara, had known about it for a long time, and the official discoverers acknowledged their debt by proposing Leontopithecus caissara as the species’ formal name.

The location was a surprise: Superagui is largely developed, and lies in the heavily populated region surrounding Sao Paulo. Primatologist Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, marveled that it was “almost like finding a major new species in the Los Angeles suburbs.”

The discovery brought the number of known species of lion tamarins to four. All are endangered: the golden-rumped species was rediscovered in 1970 after no one had seen it in sixty-five years.

The most recent find came from the depths of the rain forest. In the fall of 1992, the first report of the Rio Maues marmoset was published. The new marmoset is a long-tailed greyish furball weighing less than a pound. It sports faint black stripes, large eyes, distinct ear tufts, and a cuddly face reminiscent of a koala.

Swiss scientist Marco Schwarz actually found the monkey in 1985 near the Maues river, a tributary of the Amazon. He obtained a live pair of the marmosets, but didn’t immediately recognize their uniqueness. It wasn’t until photographs of the eight-inch-long animals reached Dr. Mittermeier that the species Callithrix mausei was officially added to the primate order.

As of 1995, Brazil’s known primate count stands at an impressive 68 species. Dr. Mittermeier thinks four or five more will be found before the turn of the century. That sounds optimistic, but Mittermeier knows something about finding primates, having personally rediscovered the supposedly extinct Peruvian yellow-tailed woolly monkey in 1974.

Other new primates have popped up in recent years, including two lemurs from Madagascar. The golden bamboo lemur was first sighted in 1986, when a Duke University team searching for a rare known species happened across it. Three years later, the golden-crowned sifaka was classified, concluding a scientific detective story that began with British primatologist Ian Tattersall’s 1974 photograph of a mostly-white lemur he couldn’t identify.

Going back a few decades, a striking primate discovery was announced to the world in 1953. In that year, naturalist E.P. Gee published the first description of the golden langur from Assam. The langur’s coat shines a pale gold, except for a dark mask on the animal’s face.

Little is known of this slender-bodied, long-tailed species even today. Its obscurity is surprising, since it’s a large monkey (up to two feet long, plus the tail) which is active mainly in daylight. It is, like most langurs, a tree-dweller that spends most of its time munching on the vegetation. The golden langur’s range is limited to small areas of India and Bhutan.

A year before the golden langur made its scientific debut, its cousin, the white-headed langur, turned up in China’s Guangxi province. Both primates are now rare and endangered. More recently, China produced a large race of the Assam macaque which may qualify as a separate species. This was identified from a captured specimen whose finders originally thought they’d nabbed a yeren, China’s presumably-mythical “wildman.”

Africa has plenty of monkeys of its own, including new ones. The Salongo monkey was discovered in Zaire in 1977, when a Japanese tourist bought a skin from native hunters. The grayish-brown primate proved to be a new species belonging to a wide-ranging and prolific genus called the guenons. A new subspecies of the redtailed guenon was discovered in 1984 in a very different location – a French pet shop. Another new species, the sun-tailed guenon, was described in 1988 after being found as a captive in a village in Gabon. British primatologist Mike Harrison was the first to see this monkey, known in its very limited range as the mbaya.

This wasn’t the only case where a monkey was well-known to the local inhabitants before scientists “discovered” it. In 1985, zoologists Katherine Homewood and W. Alan Rodgers spotted a new gray-brown monkey near Sanje Falls in Tanzania. Their native guide was puzzled by their excitement. It was just a ngolaga, he said: if they wanted to see one, he could just have shown them the tame one in his village and saved them all the arduous hiking through the forest. They found and bought this pet, and thus the Sanje mangabey joined the known primates.

Given this track record, anyone writing a textbook on primates of the world would be wise to leave the last pages blank.


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