SIU student finds new and endangered ape species

Updated: Nov. 15, 2017 at 6:49 PM CST
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(Source: Matthew Nowak/SOCP)
(Source: Matthew Nowak/SOCP)

CARBONDALE, IL (KFVS) - There are many brilliant scholars in the Heartland. One being a Southern Illinois University Carbondale student with breakthrough research.

Matthew Nowak, a SIU doctoral student, identifies a new great ape species along with a long list of other scientists.

"This is huge! This phenomenally exciting," explained Susan Ford, a retired professor of the Anthropology Department.  Nowak is her doctoral student. "Oh he is a great student… I loved having him here – he is so bright and so hard working and always so thorough in every detail."

Nowak, being one of four "primary" authors, found a new ape species called the Tapanuli Orangutan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. With only 800 individuals left, the Tapanuli Orangutan is the most endangered great ape species in the world.

Matthew described his experience, "I mean it's just like probably one of the biggest things I will ever be a part of…for being sort of not even finished with my PhD, it's a very eye-opening experience if you will and it's taught me a lot."

According to Ford, many scholars at SIU have identified numerous types of new species like microorganism, frogs, butterflies, but Ford explains the significance of Nowak's findings.

"Finding a new species is really important to science.  And is really something that is significant. But we don't hear about those scholars very often because not that many people are tuned into thinking about a new butterfly, or a new fish or a new bacterium. But orangs, they are so close to ourselves. They are so like ourselves. There's something about apes that is emotionally exciting for the average human as well as myself as a scientist, that it elevates the significance of this finding. Because in many ways we are not only learning something about another organism, but we are learning perhaps something more about ourselves in our own ancestry."

Nowaks explained how there is still so much more to learns, "There is still a lot that we don't yet know… and we've been collecting behavioral data for a number of years now. I'm in the process of also writing that up and we are hoping it will show some interesting things."

Nowak has been in Indonesia for seven years, part of that time working on collecting data for his dissertation in the field and the other part working with an organization called Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP).

Walking among these apes every day to get watch their behavior, but still runs into some challenges.

"Being a foreigner here can be sometimes difficult...Both from monetarily speaking coming here and establishing a life… but also like what I saying previously, learning the culture, learning the language."

Ford concluded, "This kind of science is really difficult and is done with very little resources and a lot of dedication by someone like Matt who gives the time, the focus, the time away from his life to really be able to get us the information to advance science in this particular way."

Nowak told us he will be finished with his written PhD by the end of the year to graduate in May.

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