School Ties: A New Monkey Discovered in the Congo

April 28, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

A new species of monkey found in the Democratic Republic of Congo may help conservation efforts in the African bush, says Hunter College anthropology professor Christopher Gilbert. A paper on the discovery of the Cercopithecus lomamiensis, known locally as the “Lesula,” co-authored by Gilbert made news headlines last fall.

“The Lesula helps to highlight the region and the publicity of a new primate helps to emphasize the importance of the [Congo] for conservation,” says Gilbert, who added that the discovery would put pressure on local authorities to protect “their new famous species,” found deep in the Lomami forest basin of central DRC.

While the discovery puts a focus on conservation, it also demonstrates that there are still parts of the world that are relatively unknown, says Gilbert, who collaborated with scientists from the Lukuru Foundation, and Columbia and Yale — among other universities — to determine the uniqueness of the Lesula.

Hunter College anthropologist Christopher Gilbert

Hunter College anthropologist Christopher Gilbert

“My role was to perform the anatomical analysis demonstrating that this animal was in fact distinct from any monkey we already knew about,” says Gilbert, who did the research with Eric Sargis while Gilbert was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale and contributed to the writing and submission of the paper for publication in PLOS ONE, a peer-review journal, once he was at Hunter.

The Lesula is a small-to-medium-sized animal whose closest relative is the owl-faced monkey. The analysis, based on measurements from “a handful of skulls and skin,” demonstrated a statistical difference between the new species and its nearest relative, says Gilbert. The Lesula, as described in the research paper, have big eyes that are closer together with a skull that appears to be more flexed compared to the owl-faced monkey. Other distinguishing features include a much paler face and nose stripe, a blonde-golden mane, and a reddish stripe on the lower back. Genetic analysis suggests that the Lesula and owl-faced monkey populations have been separated for approximately 2 million years.

The first Lesula found by researchers was a young captive animal in a compound in the town of Opala in 2007 by survey teams of the Lukuru Foundation, which was undertaking the first systematic inventories of large mammals of this landscape in the Congo.

The biggest threat to the Lesula are hunters who kill them for food for the local population. In fact, the first Lesula discovered by one of the lead researchers at the Lukuru Foundation and kept as a pet, mysteriously disappeared. “Most likely it ended up in somebody’s cooking pot,” says Gilbert. “This is why the whole area needs to be protected with real enforcement against hunters and poachers.”

While research continues on the newly discovered Lesula monkey, Gilbert also works at Hunter on other aspects of monkey evolution. His most recent article in the Journal of Human Evolution names a new fossil genus closely related to modern mandrills and drills, which are baboon-like animals with brightly colored red or blue faces.