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A new species of lion monkey is found in Ecuador

Published on April 14, 2021

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Scientists were able to confirm the existence of a new species of lion monkey in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where it was believed until now that only one existed, reported the San Francisco de Quito University (USFQ).

The study has been ongoing since 2015 by Stella de la Torre, professor and researcher at the USFQ College of Biological and Environmental Sciences (COCIBA), in collaboration with primatologists from the Northern Illinois and Michigan-Ann Arbor universities in the United States, and the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute.

The researchers analyzed information that allowed them to determine the existence of two species of young lions in Ecuador. The Napo River separates these two species in the country. The species “Cebuella pygmaea” lives in the north of the Ecuadorian Amazon, while the Cebuella niveiventris is located in the south.

The two species are at risk due to their high specialization in habitat and diet, as they live only in gallery forests, on the banks of rivers and lagoons in the Amazon, and feed almost exclusively on exudates from a few plant species. The deforestation of their habitat, their illegal capture for the pet market, as well as epidemics, are their main threats.

The European naturalist Johann Baptist Von Spix first described the lion monkey in 1823, based on a specimen captured in a locality in the high Amazon of Brazil. From that year until 2018, all the lion monkey populations in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador were considered as populations of a single species (Cebuella pygmaea).

It was in that year that a group of Brazilian scientists carried out a genetic analysis and described two species of these primates in Brazil, but in the rest of the countries, including Ecuador, it was believed that there was only one species.

When comparing the mitochondrial DNA extracted from lion feces samples from different locations in Ecuador, and from tissue samples from museum specimens in the country and in Peru, the researchers came to the conclusion that there are two species that are known in biology as “cryptic species,” that is, species that are very similar in their physical characteristics such as the color of their fur, but that differ in their DNA.

What are the characteristics of this species?

Young lions are considered the smallest primates in the world. In adults, the length of the head and the body together barely reaches 12 to 16 centimeters and its weight, 100 to 140 grams. They live in family groups consisting of an adult male and female and their offspring of various ages.

These monkeys are cooperative reproducers, the female usually bearing twins that are carried and cared mainly by the father and the older brothers. In captivity, young lions can live to be 18 – 19 years old; while in the wild it is estimated that they live up to 10 – 12 years.

The 2011 edition of the Red Book of Mammals of Ecuador determined that lion monkeys were on the list of vulnerable species, and therefore protected by the State. Their hunting, capture and trafficking are punishable by imprisonment for one to three years.

In the third edition of the same book, currently in edition, Cebuella pygmaea, the species north of the Napo River, is on the list of endangered species, since its habitat area is smaller and it is more affected by human activities, while that Cebuella niveiventris, the species south of the Napo, is on the list of vulnerable species.

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