Congratulations! You, a budding primatologist, have just uncovered a new species of primate. You are now bestowed with all the honors that go along with such a discovery, including publication in a major journal, first dibs on describing your primate and assigning it a place on the primate family tree, and the hugely important task of creating both a common and scientific name for this animal. Don’t underestimate the importance of the scientific naming task, either! By adding an -i to your last name, you can even immortalize yourself in the species name as the ultimate tribute to your scientific prowess. (And others have done it! How about Propithecus edwardsi, or Ateles geoffroyi, just to name a few!)
But, how did you know you had discovered a new species? Will others agree with your findings? What does this discovery mean to other primatologists?
Our basic biology courses teach us that there are distinct groups of organisms on our planet that can be neatly divided into species, which can be grouped together into Orders, which can be grouped into Classes, and so forth, all the way up to the Domain level. (For more on classification, click here.) While defining species is an important task in our study of living organisms, the reality is that understanding what a species is exactly and how a group of organisms can become a species is by no means basic or simple. Instead, controversy abounds among scientists, making your discovery of a new species a debatable issue in itself.
Biologists studying living organisms are most likely to view a species as a group of individuals that mate with each other and successfully produce babies that grow into fertile adults. The key here is that the offspring produced also successfully breed when they grow up. Thus, we allude to the old horse and donkey example. Horses (Equus ferus) mate with other horses to produce virile horses. Donkeys (Equus africanus) mate with other donkeys to produce virile donkeys. Horses and donkeys can mate together, but when they breed, they produce mules, and mules are generally sterile. So, by definition, horses and donkeys are not the same species.
Paleontologists, however, must stray from this species definition since they cannot tell which fossils bred together and/or produced fertile offspring. (Ah, if these bones could speak.) So, their ideas of species definitions tend to focus on the physical similarities of individuals, especially the traits that can be traced backward through a family line. Fossils from organisms that are physically alike, found in a similar location, and dated from a particular time period could be grouped into one species.
But fossils are relatively rare to begin with, and so entire species of extinct primates have been named on the basis of one bone, and even because of only one unique feature, such as a particular arrangement of cones on a tooth! Even when there are abundant fossils spanning long time frames, trying to determine where one species ended and a new one began can be just as problematic. Sometimes, gradual changes in physical appearance can be seen in a species over time, but we do not know at what point individuals diverged and would no longer have been capable of reproducing with other similar organisms.
Some geneticists are also interested in the species discussion, and so they attempt to separate species based on their genetic similarities and differences. Genetics are currently of more use to those studying living organisms since DNA extraction from fossils is still difficult. Genetic studies, however, are not foolproof. For example, a geneticist may suggest that two groups of organisms are actually one species based on their DNA, but behavioral researchers of those two groups will lividly protest that the two groups do not even look the same and never mate in the wild.
What does all this mean to you, oh primate discoverer extraordinaire?!? It means you have a long road ahead of you before other scientists will accept your discovery into the primate hierarchy. If you have found a living primate, you will have to prove your primate’s uniqueness on more than just physical appearance. To be taken seriously, you will have to show that your primate does not mate with any other similar species. If you have discovered a fossilized primate, you will need to show that the features in your primate are not found in any other similar remains. In either case, you might need to contact a geneticist to help back up your story, or you may need to spend years of study to verify your data.
Despite this, our popular news media regularly touts discoveries of “new species” of primates based on articles published by eager primatologists hoping to convince fellow scientists that they have indeed discovered a unique organism, worthy of the almost hallowed “species” label. Further study and future discussion into the matter often results in the demotion of these organisms to the sub-species level, or maybe even just placement as a color variant of an existing species. However, these types of novel finds should by no means be viewed as less important. Discovering a new group of primates, unstudied by anyone else, or a new bone, unlike anything found to date, fuels our hope that organisms are surviving amidst troubled times and proves that we still have so much to learn about the world around us.