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Seeking answers to big 'mystery ape'

Clues to new ape species?

By Marsha Walton
CNN

A skull belonging to a 'mystery ape,' on the left, is placed next to a chimpazee skull for comparison. Researchers say the mystery ape is much more 'flat-faced' and substantially bigger.
A skull belonging to a 'mystery ape,' on the left, is placed next to a chimpazee skull for comparison. Researchers say the mystery ape is much more 'flat-faced' and substantially bigger.

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start quoteWe cannot rule out the possibility that it is a new species of ape, or a new subspecies or some form of hybrid.end quote
-- Duane Rumbaugh, professor at Georgia State University

(CNN) -- From a remote region in the heart of Africa to a genetics lab at the Omaha Zoo, scientists are trying to find out if they have a new big ape on their hands.

"It doesn't look much like a gorilla, it doesn't look like a chimpanzee," said primatologist Shelly Williams, who captured a bit of video of the female mystery ape with a baby.

Pictures of the rare ape are scarce. Wildlife photographer Karl Amman, who was first to spot the mysterious mammals a few years ago, said the animal has feet that are about two inches bigger than the average gorilla and is more flat-faced than other apes. Its behavior also sets it apart from other apes, researchers say.

The mystery ape often sleeps in big ground nests. Chimpanzees, for example, usually nest in trees to stay away from predators. And the mystery apes hoot when the moon rises and sets, something chimps don't do for fear of attracting lions and hyenas, Williams said.

So what could this animal be?

"We cannot rule out the possibility that it is a new species of ape, or a new subspecies or some form of hybrid," said Duane Rumbaugh, a professor at Georgia State University.

"Discovering any new primate is a huge thing, a new ape would be incredible, " said Ed Louis, conservation geneticist at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.

Common ancestor

Chimpanzees, bonobos (also known as pygmy chimps), and gorillas are all members of the ape family. Present-day apes and humans had a common ancestor in the distant past -- perhaps 6 million years ago, scientists say.

But Amman found some evidence and plenty of local legend to suggest another type of big ape also may call Africa home. The forest in the north central area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the mystery ape lives, is known to be populated by chimpanzees. The nearest gorillas and bonobos are hundreds of miles away.

Williams, who speaks the local language, Lingala, interviewed villagers about their sightings of the creature in the Bili forest of what was once the Belgian Congo and later the Republic of Zaire.

"Some people call them 'lion eaters' because they are so big," Williams said.

Using clever tricks

On her last trip to the region earlier this year she got within about 15 feet of the animals. With some local trackers she was able to follow the apes for several hours. Williams and the trackers used some clever tricks to lure the mystery apes.

Pictures of the 'mystery ape' are rare because the animals are skittish and aggressive. Here a researcher captured an image from afar of one of the animals with her offspring.
Pictures of the 'mystery ape' are rare because the animals are skittish and aggressive. Here a researcher captured an image from afar of one of the animals with her offspring.

"One of my trackers made the sound of a duiker, a small antelope, as if it were in pain," said Williams. Four or five of the mystery primates fell for the ruse and came running to kill it.

Chimpanzees and bonobos both are carnivorous. Chimps are known to eat monkeys, and at times other chimps; bonobos catch and eat fish.

Williams also has a fascinating anecdote from a longtime resident of the region, an 84-year-old Norwegian Baptist missionary known as "Madame Liev."

"Years ago, she was driving an old truck and one of these apes walked by in front of her. It was walking bipedally (upright) and was taller than her, and she's six feet tall," Williams said.

Comparing DNA

Conservation geneticist Ed Louis at the Omaha Zoo is working on an important piece of the ape mystery also.

"We compared fecal samples from this unknown animal to the DNA of captive gorillas, bonobos, and chimps," Louis said. "Our preliminary data shows that the mitochondrial DNA is chimp-like."

But mitochondrial DNA is passed down only from the mother's side. So if this species or sub-species is a hybrid of a chimp mother and a gorilla father, current DNA would only identify information from the mother.

Tests yet to come are nuclear DNA tests: This roadmap would come from both parents.

Is it a hybrid?

If the mystery animal does turn out to be a hybrid of a chimp and a gorilla , for example, such inter-breeding would not be unique in nature. There are several examples of different species breeding successfully, said Louis.

There are hybridized green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles, as well as some hybrids of Borneo and Sumatran orangutans.

Such pairings "can throw a monkey wrench in our idea of species," Louis said.

Louis said he's eager to examine further samples from the mystery ape.

Williams hopes to return to the African habitat this autumn.

She's already working on some tactics to improve her observation. She'll camouflage her skin because the animals have not seen light-skinned humans. She'll also follow the animals and try to camp out near them overnight, and she'll set up three more observation platforms near the animals' nests.


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