Image: Louis
Ed Louis, a conservation geneticist at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, conducts a DNA analysis that could reveal the origins of large, mysterious African apes.
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updated 9/23/2003 2:30:47 PM ET 2003-09-23T18:30:47

Scientists hope DNA analysis will reveal the origins of large, mysterious apes discovered in the heart of Africa.

InsertArt(2022438)GENETICS RESEARCH has begun at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo on fecal samples collected this summer from the rare apes to determine if they make up a new species, a new subspecies or some form of hybrid — possibly a mix between a chimpanzee and a gorilla.

“It’s a new, mystery ape, and we are doing the DNA fingerprinting to find out more,” said Dr. Lee Simmons, zoo director.

The apes, which stand 5 to 6 feet tall (1.5 to 2 meters) and have feet nearly 14 inches (36 centimeters) long, were first documented last year by Atlanta primatologist Shelly Williams in a forest in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They have bodies similar to those of gorillas, but generally the facial characteristics of a chimpanzee. Williams said the animals sleep on the ground at night like gorillas, but eat a fruit-rich diet like chimpanzees.

“I can’t speculate yet as to what they are. Their behavior is so unusual. It’s a puzzle. ... I feel like Dr. Doolittle in the land of Oz,” said Williams, who has captured some video of the animals but no photographs.

Because of their size and elusiveness, the apes have no predators — not even poachers hunt them, Williams said. With no fear of lions, leopards or hyenas, the large animals hoot at the moon as it rises and sets, which is extremely unusual for apes, she said.

“The people are very afraid of them. They call them the ‘lion killers’ because they are huge creatures,” Williams said. “The folklore is they could kill lions.”

FECAL SAMPLES ANALYZED

Williams collected fecal samples from the animals’ nests before returning in June from her most recent trip to the Congo. In August, she delivered those samples to the Omaha zoo, where they are being compared with the DNA of captive gorillas, bonobos (pygmy chimps), and chimps, said Ed Louis, a conservation geneticist leading the research at the Omaha zoo.

“If this ends up being a new species of ape, that would be amazing. Even if it’s a hybridization, that would be fascinating,” Louis said. “However, at this point we don’t even know what we’re dealing with.”

Biologically, it is possible for a chimpanzee and a gorilla to have viable, fertile offspring, Williams said.

The DNA analysis is expected to take months. However, it may be impossible to determine the apes’ entire ancestry without getting a sample of blood or tissue.

MORE SPECIMENS SOUGHT

Louis plans to join Williams on her next trip to the Congo, likely in November, to collect more specimens for DNA analysis.

Image: Williams
Primatologist Shelly Williams displays a plaster cast she took of a footprint of an elusive strain of ape sighted in Africa.
“Without getting your hands on the animal, it’s difficult to say what it is,” said Louis, who in recent years has identified several new species of monkeylike lemurs in Madagascar through his genetic research.

Williams did collect hair from the apes’ nests, but none of the samples included follicles, which are needed for extracting cells for DNA research. She also made molds of the apes’ large footprints found in mud near the nests. The footprints were nearly 2 inches (5 centimeters) larger than the average length of a gorilla’s foot, which is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) long.

What makes the gorillalike apes even more unusual is that the closest gorillas documented in that part of Africa are thousands of miles away, Williams said.

“The possibility is there that this is a new species due to isolation,” she said.

The last discovery of a great ape was in 1902, when mountain gorillas were found in the Virunga Volcanoes, where the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda meet.

Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, a Washington-based organization that focuses its energy and resources on biodiversity conservation, has assisted in the discovery of six new species of monkeys and marmosets in the Brazilian Amazon. He is not ruling out the possibility that the apes Williams is studying make up a new species.

“If this turns out to be a new species of ape, it would be one of the big discoveries of primatology,” he said. “It has been so long since there has been a distinct discovery.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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