Sneezin' in the Rain: New Monkey Is Discovered

A Photoshop reconstruction of the new snub-nosed monkey, based on a Yunnan snub-nosed monkey and a carcass of the newly discovered species. (Image credit: Thomas Geissmann)

Almost by definition, species unknown to science are often tough to track down. But researchers seeking out a new species of primate in northern Myanmar were assured by locals that the monkeys aren't hard to find at all. You just have to wait for it to rain.

The new species, a previously unknown type of snub-nosed monkey dubbed Rhinopithecus strykeri, has a nose so upturned that the animals sneeze audibly when it rains. To avoid inhaling water, the monkeys supposedly sit with their heads tucked between their knees on drizzly days, according to local hunters.

The discovery, reported today (Oct. 26) in the American Journal of Primatology, was made by biologists from the Myanmar Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association and primatologists from Fauna and Flora International and the People Resources and Biodiversity Foundation.

The research team was working on a survey of gibbons in northeastern Myanmar in early 2010 when villagers told them about a monkey with an odd nose and prominent lips. Based on the descriptions, the researchers suspected the locals were seeing snub-nosed monkeys, threatened primates previously found only in China and Vietnam.

Intrigued, the team investigated further, surveying field sites and interviewing local villagers. The monkeys were well-known in the area, with villagers in 25 of 33 locations reporting monkey sightings. Several hunters provided skulls and hides from the monkeys, which have now been placed in museum collections in Switzerland and Myanmar.

After studying the specimens, the researchers realized they had a new species on their hands. The monkeys are about 21 inches (55 centimeters) long from upturned nose to rump, but their 30-inch (78 cm) tails more than double their length. Their fur is black with white ear tufts. Except for their white moustaches, the monkeys' faces are bare and pink.

The villagers in the area call the monkeys “myuk na tok te” or “mey nwoah,” both names meaning "monkey with an upturned nose," the researchers write. The monkeys themselves live in a mountainous area separated from other species by two rivers. Their range is probably no more than 167 square miles (270 square kilometers), and they likely number no more than 330. That makes the newly discovered monkey critically endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) standards.

The monkeys are especially threatened by planned dam construction and logging roads in their habitat, the researchers report.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.