Orangutans are pretty much the best. And, guess what, there’s a whole new species.

Orangutans are pretty amazing animals. They’re one of the few great apes alive today and among humankind's closest cousins. But we may not have realized just how amazing they are until now.

The discovery started with a scene out of something like "CSI." Raya, an older adult male orangutan, had been killed by humans back in 2013. Researchers knew Raya had come from an unusual population of orangutans and had preserved his skeleton for study. And as they pored over the remains, a couple of weird things started to stick out.

"We were surprised that the skull was quite different in some characteristics from anything we had seen before," said Matt Nowak, an anthropologist. The teeth looked different too.


Hey there, big fella. Photo by Maxime Aliaga/University of Zurich.

Before he became an evolutionary puzzle, Raya had come from a rugged, mountainous, and thickly forested area known as Batang Toru.

Batang Toru is far south of anywhere else orangutans are found in Sumatra. The apes that live there are cut off from any other population of their kind. Isolated populations often evolve in unique and interesting ways, which hinted to scientists that the Batang Toru apes were special.

Armed with Raya's unique skull and teeth, the Indonesian scientists reached out to colleagues who'd done a previous genetic study.

"It was then that all the pieces fell in place," Nowak says.

The Batang Toru apes weren't just special. They were a unique species.

In honor of the Malaysian district the apes were found in, the new species has been given the scientific name Pongo tapanuliensis.

Before this, we’d known of two orangutan species. One on the island of Sumatra and one in Borneo, with Sumatran orangutans having thinner faces, longer beards, and a tendency to use more tools. But we now know there aren't two orangutan species out there — there are three.

The genetic analysis also showed that the Batang Toru apes weren't just a new species but may also represent an ancient genetic lineage that stretches back to the first orangutans to arrive on Sumatra eons ago.

The new species of ape. Photo by Tim Laman/University of Zurich.

But even as the world gets to know this new species of great ape, its future is already uncertain.

The entire species might only include about 800 living animals, according to a survey. In fact, primates all around the world are facing increasingly tough odds — as many as three-quarters of all primate species are in decline.

The good news is that we already know several ways to help out this new species. Like all orangutans, the Batang Toru apes need large, healthy forests to survive, which means protecting their habitat from deforestation is critical. The World Wildlife Fund, TRAFFIC, and International Animal Rescue also help governments crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade, which can affect orangutans. They even rescue infants that were sold as pets.

It's hard to look into a great ape's eyes and not see a little of ourselves reflected back at us.

The discovery of a whole new species of human cousin should be an incredible moment of joy. But it should also a rallying cry for better, stronger conservation efforts to make sure these animals stay around a long, long time.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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