Dec. 17, 2012 -- Three new species of venomous, two-tongued primates have recently been identified. All represent different types of slow loris, a nocturnal animal with big eyes, a teddy bear face and a deadly bite.
The primates, described in the American Journal of Primatology, had originally been grouped with another known slow loris, Nycticebus menegensis. This original, single species contained animals with significantly different features, lead author Rachel Munds, a University of Missouri doctoral student in anthropology, told Discovery News.
"The differences that are documented at present include particularly the darkness and extent of dark coloring around the eyes, the shape and darkness of a 'cap' on the head, the overall light or darkness of the hair, as well as body size and length," co-author Susan Ford, vice president of the Midwest Primate Interest Group, explained to Discovery News. Ford is also an associate dean and director of the Graduate School at Southern Illinois University.
The four species of slow loris all hail from the Indonesian island of Borneo.
N. menegensis, seen here, and N. kayan live in the northeastern part of the island. The two other species, N. bancanus and N. borneanus, dwell in the southwestern portion.
"Borneo is a large island that has been extensively isolated," co-author Anna Nekaris, who is a professor in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University, told Discovery News. "During the glacial periods, rainforest remained and the large rivers allowed species to remain isolated from each other. The north is more species-rich in terms of endemics than the rest of the island."
"[In Borneo] the rivers, mountains and lack of forests in some areas probably contributed to the (slow loris) species divisions," Munds continued.
She and her colleagues have not yet performed genetic testing of the primates. "It is difficult to catch wild slow lorises," Munds noted.
The researchers have obtained samples from museum specimens, but "the problem with using museum tissue is that it is difficult to extract DNA, but hopefully we will succeed," she added.
The researchers are confident that the studied animals do indeed represent different species. As Nekaris reminded, the body sizes alone are a huge indicator. The four lorises range in weight from far less than a pound to 1.5 pounds.
The slow loris is the only venomous primate and one of only a few venomous mammals, Munds said. The bite can severely injure or kill victims. It is also toxic to parasites.
"Producing venom is such a rare mammalian feature that almost certainly it was not characteristic of the ancestral primate or the ancestor of lorises and lemurs," Ford said. "Rather, this is a unique characteristic that has evolved only in Asian slow lorises among primates."
"Lorises can kill small lizards, birds, bats and geckos as well as a myriad of insects," Nekaris added. "Most slow lorises, however, specialize on gouging for gum and consuming nectar containing high amounts of noxious secondary compounds."
Unfortunately, many of these endangered primates undergo painful tooth extractions to remove their venomous bite. The animals are then illegally sold as pets.
This caged slow loris was found for sale in Möng La, Shan, Myanmar.
Many such slow lorises die in squalid conditions. Once in a home, they may also die, as owners do not adequately provide the primates with the social, nutritional and habitat requirements that they need.
"It is essential to encourage people not to purchase them as pets in order to conserve them for the future," Munds said. "Additionally, it is vital to protect the habitats of these primates. Many of the forests of these primates are threatened by human encroachment, which results in deforestation."
"Laws against keeping them as pets and killing them for traditional medicines should be enforced," Nekaris said. "YouTube and similar Internet sharing sites should ban illegal slow loris videos that encourage the pet trade. And, of course, better forest protection laws should be enforced."
Nekaris is one of the world's leading experts on lorises. Through The Little Fireface Project, she and her team are working hard to help save these nocturnal primates.
In this photo, a slow loris is captured and collared for tracking purposes.
"Many nocturnal species still remain unknown to science," she said. "Nocturnal species rely on sound and smell to detect each other. They don't use vision in their mating recognition systems. It is no surprise that these loris species have been undetected for so long."