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Two teams of researchers, one led by a UGA anthropologist, co-discover the Highland mangabey and reconfirm the value and uniqueness of its diverse environment.
On Tanzania’s forested mountain slopes, Carolyn Ehardt and her research team made the find of a lifetime in September 2004. But they were under strict orders to keep mum about discovering Africa’s first new primate species in two decades, the Highland mangabey, until their paper was published in the journal Science eight months later.
Ehardt, a University of Georgia primatologist, unknowingly began to lay the groundwork for her 2004 discovery a decade earlier. She had received support from the U.S. National Science Foundation to assess the feasibility of primate research in the Udzungwa. Her pilot work led to a study of the conservation status of primates and other large mammals and birds of the Udzungwa Mountains; it also indicated a need for basic survey research. For the next seven years, Ehardt and her team of scientists and local assistants traversed the rugged mountain slopes during Tanzania’s dry season, collecting distribution and abundance data on monkeys, other native mammals and birds. At the survey’s completion, Ehardt decided to focus her ensuing research on the Sanje mangabeys, reclusive monkeys that live in troops of 35 to 40 adults and young, and, during daylight hours, clamor about in the tall trees and on the forest floor of the mountain’s steep slopes.
“We knew nothing about their habitat requirements, diet or ranging patterns,” Ehardt said. “We knew nothing even about their demographics or how many we thought remained in the forests. All of this is essential information if we are to effectively conserve the remaining total population of less than 1,300 animals.”No Luck and Then a Jackpot
In 2003, Ehardt was preparing for a yearlong ecological and population studies of Sanje mangabeys in the park and surrounding forests with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and Primate Conservation, Inc.
She located a group of Sanje mangabeys for close-range studies and selected a volunteer field assistant, Trevor Jones, to help habituate them. The tall order required a year of patience plus mental and physical stamina to negotiate the rugged terrain. “You would try to follow them,” Ehardt said, “and of course they’re up in the trees and you’re on the ground, so they can go over a ridge and disappear. They’re also very skittish, as they were — and sometimes still are — hunted for food.”
In December 2004, the study group was habituated and systematic research began. Ehardt trained Jones and his Tanzanian assistants in her data-collection techniques, initiated the project and returned to Athens, Ga., to fulfill her spring-semester teaching assignment. She planned to rejoin her team in early May for the remainder of the study. In February, however, she learned of a cancerous lump, “an incredibly frustrating turn of events,” she said. Two surgeries and seven weeks of radiation treatment would keep her stateside until August at the earliest.
The delay put her in a bind to complete all aspects of her funded project. To speed things up she decided to send her team into Ndundulu Mountains Forest Reserve to try to locate groups of Sanje mangabeys that Danish ornithologist Lars Dinesen had spotted three times in the early 1990s. If any mangabeys remained in Ndundulu and if her team could locate them, the demographic data would be crucial to documenting the species’ conservation status. She emailed Jones to go to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania’s capital, and meet with Dinesen, who could pinpoint exactly where his team had spotted Sanje mangabeys.
Following the meeting, Jones and his assistants trekked to Dinesen’s mapped sites but never located the intended animals; instead, they caught glimpses of an unfamiliar species. In July, Jones emailed Ehardt, who was taking radiation treatment, with the surprising subject line: “New Mangabey for Tanzania?”
“I start reading this message, and Trevor writes, ‘Well, we saw something and all we know is that it wasn’t a Sanje mangabey. It was a monkey. I managed to get a very blurry picture, and I’ve attached it.’” Ehardt looked at the photograph and knew it was not a Sanje mangabey. “Not by a long shot,” she said. “I wasn’t so sure that it was any kind of monkey anybody had ever seen before — anywhere.”
The monkey seemed to have distinctive features much different from those of Sanje mangabeys or other known mangabeys, she said. The observed creatures had broad, upright crests of hair on their heads, white bellies and chests, and black faces. Ehardt described her reaction as “stunned, absolutely stunned.”
Jones also copied the email to primatologist Tom Butynski, Ehardt’s collaborator on the Udzungwa surveys and now director of Conservation International’s Eastern Africa Biodiversity Hotspots. “Tom looked at it and he and I began an email exchange on what it might be,” Ehardt said.Co-Discovery
Desperate to observe these new monkeys, Ehardt decided in August she could wait no longer. Despite doctor’s orders to remain stateside for six weeks after radiation treatment, she booked a flight to Kenya and invited Butynski to join the expedition. Together they journeyed south from Nairobi to join Jones and her other field assistants on a trek into the Ndundulu Forest. Arriving at the place where the Danes and her field assistants had seen monkeys, they split into three groups, scoured the forests and six days later were finally gazing at the unusual-looking mangabeys.
“Tom and I stood there intently looking at them through our binoculars,” she said. “Fortunately, they were feeding in trees on the other side of a valley and hadn’t seen us, so we were able to get good looks at them before they fled. We just watched and watched and watched.”
“At just about the same time we put our binoculars down, looked at each other and went, ‘Uh-huh … amazing!’ We knew it was a new species. You can’t imagine how exciting it was to be looking at something that had never been known to science before.”
In the following weeks, Ehardt and Butynski deciphered the taxonomic placement of the new species. The trio wrote up their findings, submitted their paper to Science and held their tongues in observance of the journal’s prepublication embargo.
With the manuscript under review, Ehardt drove to Dar-es-Salaam in October to re-register her dying research vehicle, check her email and stock up on supplies. She also was to meet with a Wildlife Conservation Society representative, who also would be in Dar-es-Salaam at the time. Although she had never met Graeme Patterson, WCS’s Africa Program assistant director, the two had corresponded when she was preparing her grant proposal to study Sanje mangabeys.
“While driving over,” she said, “I’m thinking, should I say anything to Graeme about this new discovery? I decided to swear him to secrecy and tell him; after all, the greatest portion of my funding that led to this discovery was from WCS, and I knew they would be excited about what had been produced through their generous support.”
While she and Patterson were shaking hands, he mentioned that Tim Davenport, director of WCS’s Southern Rift and Southern Highlands Conservation Program, was in town and also wanted to meet her. Ehardt quickly decided to swear both men to secrecy and soon she was describing the new monkey in vivid detail. As she talked, she said she saw them “looking intensely at her and then at each other, expressions of incredulity spreading across their faces, and Davenport was growing increasingly agitated.”
It turned out that Davenport’s team was preparing a manuscript that described the same species. “Now both of us were staring at each other in unbridled disbelief,” Ehardt said.
Davenport hurriedly retrieved his computer, set it on the table and scrolled through several photos. The two teams independently had co-discovered the same new species in two disparate locations unbeknownst to each other. “They actually found the animal in their site before we did,” Erhardt said.Demonstrating the Value of the Forests
Instead of scooping Davenport’s team — a frequent practice when scientists make co-discoveries — Ehardt withdrew her team’s paper from Science in order to co-author a more comprehensive one with Davenport’s team. “It was a win-win situation for everyone, especially the mangabey,” she said. “Adding another endangered primate to the list shows how vital it is to conserve Tanzania’s Southern Highlands [where Davenport’s team saw the new mangabey], in addition to the Udzungwa Mountains. In fact, it is more important, given the extreme alteration and destruction of the Southern Highlands forests.”
Davenport, who has worked in more than 50 forests in Uganda through much of the 1990s, said he was very familiar with the gray-cheeked mangabey, and “knew that this new animal was significantly different in appearance and call. The first time I saw [the Highland mangabey] well, at the end of 2003, I was a little dumbstruck, although as I have reported elsewhere, my actual first words are not really repeatable!”
Discovering the same mangabey in both areas confirms that there’s still much to learn about forests in Tanzania and other regions of Africa. “The Eastern Arcs have long been known to be very valuable for their biodiversity and endemism (species native to a limited geographical area),” Davenport said. “While the Southern Highlands have been much neglected, this discovery further demonstrates their value and supports the work we have been doing on the biogeographical links between the Southern Highlands and the Eastern Arcs.”Nature of the Species
In December the two teams settled on a name — the Highland mangabey (Lophocebus kipunji) — and submitted their paper to Science. The name honors people living near Davenport’s site who spoke of a reclusive monkey they called kipunji. People living near Ehardt’s research site, however, had no knowledge of the monkey’s existence. On May 20, 2005, Science published their paper, and both research teams were finally allowed to speak openly of their joint discovery.
Ehardt speculated that she and Butynski had overlooked the Highland mangabey in previous surveys because of its reclusive nature, confinement to a distant area of the Ndundulu Forest and small population size. She and Butynski had visited the Ndundulu area looking for monkeys in 1994 and twice since then but neither had seen or heard Highland mangabeys.
“They lack the loud ‘whoop gobble’ call that all other known mangabeys have,” Ehardt said. “In the morning they aren’t giving these vocalizations that can be heard a kilometer away. And when threatened, they go to the very top of the canopy, split up into small groups of two or three and become totally still and completely quiet.”
In all fairness, Ehardt also credits her Danish colleagues for first “discovering” the Highland mangabey, before either she or Davenport spotted them. “For various and perfectly understandable good reasons, the ornithologists misreported what they were,” Ehardt said. “And it was their pinpointed sightings that allowed us to find them again, a decade later. They certainly deserve credit, also, for this amazing find.”
Ehardt now has funding to genetically characterize the new species and get a clearer understanding of how it’s related to other mangabeys. “They are quite different,” she said, “and I sometimes speculate that they may eventually be taxonomically categorized as a completely new genus of primates.”
But for Ehardt and Davenport the most important issue is protecting the species and its critically endangered relatives. “We need to do much more if we’re to be comfortable that we’re not going to destroy them,” said Ehardt, voicing both teams’ urgent concern about safeguarding the world’s biodiversity hotspots. “What really drives me is to contribute to ensuring that biodiversity does exist in the future, despite the tremendous challenges facing us.”
Both scientists have taken a key step by training other scientists to help protect expanses of wild, fragile and as-yet-poorly understood environments for future generations to enjoy. Among the paper’s coauthors are Noah Mpunga and Sophy Machaga, senior conservation biologists with the WCS Southern Highlands Conservation Program and the first Africans to describe a species of African monkey. “I hope this will encourage more Africans to get involved in research and conservation,” Davenport said.
Ehardt concurs. “I want to leave behind a group of Tanzanians who have the knowledge, experience and heart to be stewards of these incredible natural resources,” she said. “That’s why I keep plugging away, and will continue as long as I can climb those mountains.”
For more information email Carolyn Ehardt at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tim Davenport at email@example.com. Or access http://www.anthro.uga.edu/people/cehardt.html. To see video of the highland mangabeys, hear their bizarre honk-bark or learn more about their conservation, access www.kipunji.org.
THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA RESEARCH MAGAZINE : www.researchmagazine.uga.edu