According to CNN scientists have identified a previously undocumented type of ape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Genetic tests are currently being conducted on fecal samples to determine the animal's classification. The researchers are entertaining three possibilities: it is a chimpanzee subspecies; it is a hybrid form of gorilla and chimpanzee; or it is a completely unknown ape species. Any one of these possibilities would be remarkable.
A Chimp Subspecies: Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives. If this new ape turns out to be a form of chimpanzee, it is radically different, both in form and behavior. There has long been a debate over whether or not bonobo chimps more accurately reflect the behavior patterns of early humans than mainstream chimps. Now we may have found a new chimp that lives on the ground and has been observed to walk bipedally, so it would almost certainly be the closest living model we have to the behavior of early humans.
A Gorilla/Chimp Hybrid: If this is the case, it would be extraordinary. I'm willing to accept that in theory gorilla and chimp DNA could combine to produce viable offspring, but it's hard to imagine the two species actually mating with each other in the wild. They are behaviorally so different from one another. Furthermore, the new hybrid ape would have to survive to adulthood, find a mate, and be able to reproduce, which is an ability that most interspecies hybrids , such as mules, do not have. Furthermore, one would expect that most of the new DNA would gradually become diluted with each passing generation, rather than that a new genetically distinct population would arise. It certainly sounds farfetched, but that would make it all the more intriguing if true.
A New Species of Ape: Wow! Finding a whole new species of great ape would be mindblowing. Chimps, gorillas, and orangutans are so fascinating because of their high level of intelligence combined with their similarity to humans. Yet each species is so different from the other two. Chimps are the most aggressive, both to other chimps and to smaller animals which they occasionally hunt as food. Gorillas are strict vegetarians and normally very docile. They sometimes fight for dominance, but not with the ferocity of chimps. Orangutans are loners. They don't live in communities, and it is not unusual for them to be out on their own for as long as a month without even running into another of their kind, although they do have complex social interactions when not alone. A New ape species would likely be as different from the other great apes as they are from each other. The best case scenario would be for us to discover not only that this is a new species, but one that is genetically even closer to humans than chimpanzees, perhaps even more intelligent. Wouldn't that be something?
We'll know more in about a month when the genetic tests have been completed. And this autumn, primatologist Shelly Williams says she hopes to return to Africa to further study the apes. Hopefully she'll take better pictures this time around.