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Feb. 7, 2013 Volume 34, No. 18

New primate species discovered by university doctoral student

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ENDANGERED Slor lorises are many times abused by owners and killed for their properties for use in traditional Asian medicines. Courtesy of the International Animal Rescue


Slow lorises are taken as pets even though they can’t be domesticated

A venomous primate with two tongues would seem to make for a terrible pet. But the big-eyed, teddy-bear face of the slow loris (Nycticebus sp.) has made them a target for illegal pet poachers throughout the animal’s range in southeastern Asia. 

A University of Missouri doctoral student and her colleagues recently identified three new species of slow loris. The primates had originally been grouped with another species.

Dividing the species into four distinct classes could help efforts to protect the unusual primate.

Rachel Munds, MU doctoral student in anthropology in the College of Arts and Science was the lead author of “Taxonomy of the Bornean Slow Loris, with New Species Nycticebus Kayan,” published in December in the American Journal of Primatology. The paper described the physiological and habitat differences that justified dividing the three new species of slow loris (N. bancanus, N. borneanus and N. kayan) from the original species of slow loris N. menagensis. 

Slow lorises cannot be domesticated and are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But that hasn’t stopped people from keeping them as pets.

Nearly all the primates sold as pets are taken from the wild, breaking the bonds of the lorises’ complex and poorly understood social structures. The venomous teeth are ripped out. Many of them die in the squalid conditions of pet markets. Once in the home, pet keepers tend not to provide the primates with the social, nutritional and habitat requirements they need to live comfortably. Pet keepers also tend to engage the nocturnal animals during the day, disrupting their sleep patterns.

Keeping them in zoos is also problematic. Zoos typically have difficulty meeting their nutritional needs for certain insects, tree gums and nectars. Slow lorises rarely breed in captivity. 

The newly identified species hail from the Indonesian island of Borneo. Munds and her colleagues observed that the original single species contained animals with significantly different body sizes, fur thickness, habitats and facial markings. Museum specimens, photographs and live animals helped primatologists parse out four species from the original one. 

As a result of the work, instead of one animal listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there may be four endangered or threatened species. This potential change in conservation status may serve to draw attention to the plight of the primates and increase legal protections.

“YouTube videos of lorises being tickled, holding umbrellas or eating with forks have become wildly popular,” said MU graduate Anna Nekaris, a study co-author and a primatology professor at Oxford Brookes University. 

“CNN recently promoted loris videos as ‘feel good’ entertainment. In truth, the lorises gripping forks or umbrellas are simply desperate to hold something,” Nekaris said. “The arboreal animals are adapted to spending their lives in trees clutching branches. Pet keepers rarely provide enough climbing structures for them.”

The pet trade isn’t the only threat to the creatures. They also are used in Asian traditional medicines. The methods used to extract the medicines can be exceedingly violent, Nekaris said. For example, in order to obtain tears of the big-eyed lorises, skewers are inserted into the animals’ anuses and run through their bodies until they exit the mouth. The still-alive animals are then roasted over a smoky fire and the tears that stream from their eyes are collected and used to supposedly treat eye diseases in humans.