April 19, 2014

MU Researcher identifies three new species of venemous primate

A University of Missouri researcher hopes her work to sort out four species of primates will help to save them.

One of the newly identified species of slow loris is the Nycticebus kayan. (Photo credit: Ch'ien C Lee)

One of the newly identified species of slow loris is the Nycticebus kayan. (Photo credit: Ch’ien C Lee)

The slow loris has large, brown eyes like its relative the lemur, a second, serrated tongue and an extra vertebrae that makes it very limber.

On the Indonesian island of Borneo, doctoral student Rachel Munds and her colleagues determined that what was thought to be one species of slow loris is actually four different species. The team observed differences in body size, fur thickness, habitat and facial marking among the island’s loris population.

Munds says all four species are threatened by humans through deforestation, trade as pets and uses in traditional medicine by the native population.

She says lorises do not make good pets.

“They’re nocturnal, we don’t really know exactly what they eat, they are social … and when you take them out of the wild the people who capture them often rip their teeth out because of that venomous bite that they have.”

In one example of lorises being endangered by traditional Asian medicines, study co-author Anna Nekaris says the tears of the big-eyed loris are thought to be useful to treat eye diseases in humans. In some cases the way those tears are extracted involve skewering the animal and burning it alive.

Nekaris says popular internet videos of lorises doing things like holding umbrellas or eating with forks are also misleading in their innocence. She says lorises in these videos are desperate to hold something, as they would normally spend their whole lives in trees clutching to branches.

Munds hopes the distinction between the four species will earn each one endangered status.

“Because we only thought there was one loris species on Borneo, that species was originally presumed to be vulnerable, but when you divide a species into four, all of a sudden you’re looking at a totally different story because now there’s four species on Borneo, each with their particular habitats, and it makes them probably … possibly endangered. We haven’t actually changed their conservation status yet, but there’s a good chance that they would be endangered.”

Munds says she will follow-up her work with a genetic study at the University of Missouri.