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Researchers discover new species of slow loris with toxic bite

Researchers at the University of Missouri have discovered a new species of slow loris with a toxic bite. These big-eyed, teddy-bear faced primates are a target for illegal pet poachers throughout the animal’s habitat in southeastern Asia and nearby islands because of their appearance and their use in traditional Asian medicine.

According to a University of Missouri release, a doctoral student and her colleagues recently found three new species of slow loris. Prior to this discovery, the primates had been grouped with another species. While separating the species into four distinct classes means the risk of extinction is higher than previously thought for the animals, the separation could assist efforts to protect the venomous primate.

“Four separate species are harder to protect than one, since each species needs to maintain its population numbers and have sufficient forest habitat,” said lead author Rachel Munds, MU doctoral student in anthropology in the College of Arts and Science, in a statement. “Unfortunately, in addition to habitat loss to deforestation, there is a booming black market demand for the animals. They are sold as pets, used as props for tourist photos or dismembered for use in traditional Asian medicines.”

Ms. Munds says that slow lorises are not domesticated and are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Keeping the animals as pets is cruel because domesticating them is nearly impossible, she argues.

“Even zoos have difficulty meeting their nutritional needs for certain insects, tree gums and nectars,” said Ms. Munds. “Zoos rarely succeed in breeding them. Nearly all the primates in the pet trade are taken from the wild, breaking the bonds of the lorises’ complex and poorly understood social structures. The teeth they use for their venomous bite are then torn out. Many of them die in the squalid conditions of pet markets. Once in the home, pet keepers don’t provide the primates with the social, nutritional and habitat requirements they need to live comfortably. Pet keepers also want to play with the nocturnal animals during the day, disrupting their sleep patterns.”

The three news species of slow loris come from the Indonesian island of Borneo. Ms. Munds and her team saw that the original single species consisted of animals with different body sizes, fur thickness, habitats and facial markings. Using museum specimens, photographs and live animals, the researchers were able to distinguish four species from the original one. Because of this discovery, there may soon be four endangered or threatened species of slow loris listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Researchers are hopeful that this change in status will bring additional attention to the slow loris.

“YouTube videos of lorises being tickled, holding umbrellas or eating with forks have become wildly popular,” said co-author Anna Nekaris, primatology professor at Oxford Brookes University and MU graduate, in a statement. “CNN recently promoted loris videos as ‘feel good’ entertainment. In truth, the lorises gripping forks or umbrellas were simply desperate to hold something. The arboreal animals are adapted to spending their lives in trees constantly clutching branches. Pet keepers rarely provide enough climbing structures for them.”

Researchers contend that the pet trade is not the only threat to the long-term survival of the slow loris. They are also used in Asian traditional medicines. Ms. Nekaris posits that the extraction of medicines from slow lorises can be extremely painful. For instance, skewers are inserted into slow lorises’ anuses and run through their bodies to obtain their tears. The still-living animal is then roasted over a fire and the tears that stream from their eyes are collected.

You can view a video about the illegal trade in slow lorises here.

The study’s findings were recently described in the American Journal of Primatology.