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Meet India’s newest mammal: White Cheeked Macaque

The White Cheeked Macaque has distinct white cheeks, long and thick hair on the neck and a longer tail than other Macaque species. It is the last mammal to have been discovered in Southeast Asia.

Indian scientists have discovered the mammal’s presence in the remote Anjaw district in central Arunachal Pradesh. (Express Photo)

Scientists from the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) have found a new mammal species in the country — the White Cheeked Macaque.

While the Macaque was first discovered in China in 2015, its existence was not known in India before this — it is only now that Indian scientists have discovered its presence in the remote Anjaw district in central Arunachal Pradesh. That is barely 200 km aerial distance from where it was first spotted in China — in Modog in Southeastern Tibet.

The discovery has been published in the February 3 issue of international journal ‘Animal Gene’.

“The discovery was entirely accidental. We were not looking for the White Cheeked Macaque; we had received a grant of Rs 10 crore for a project to study Himalayan species — this involved exploring biodiversity of the Himalayas and studying large threatened species in the region,” ZSI scientist Dr Mukesh Thakur, also the lead author of the study carried out under recently retired director of ZSI, Dr Kailash Chandra.

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Thakur said they were tracking the Red Panda and the Arunachal macaque in the eastern Himalayas. “One of my students, Avijit Ghosh, was tracking the Arunachal macaque that we have been studying. He collected faecal and skin samples of the macaque and when we carried out DNA sequencing at ZSI lab, expecting it to be the Arunachal macaque, we realised it was actually the White Cheeked Macaque.”

White Cheeked Macaque

Taken aback by the results, Thakur said the team carried out DNA sequencing a second time around. Only to reconfirm that the ZSI had indeed stumbled upon the White Cheeked Macaque in India.

Since then, ZSI has carried out several confirmations — through more testing and camera trapping of the animal. They even discovered a juvenile White Cheeked Macaque, which had been captured and held in the house of a local villager — the tribespeople inhabiting Anjaw are traditional hunters.

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Thakur called the discovery in both China and India as “breakthrough discoveries”.

“It is very rare nowadays to discover new mammal species,” he said. “As taxonomy scientists, we do describe new species of smaller animals, amphibians and insects. But large animals are very rare.”

The latest discovery, Thakur said, takes India’s mammal count from 437 to 438.

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The White Cheeked Macaque has distinct white cheeks, long and thick hair on the neck and a longer tail than other Macaque species. It is the last mammal to have been discovered in Southeast Asia.

Both the Arunachal macaque as well as the White Cheeked Macaque exist in the same biodiversity hotspot in the eastern Himalayas.

Thakur said he is certain that further exploration will lead to more populations of the White Cheeked Macaque in eastern Arunachal, which is closer to where the Chinese White Cheeked Macaque was found, and that there is a high likelihood of the animal being present in Bhutan as well.

“The discovery will also lay the foundation of the species not only being included in the wildlife list but also being covered by the Wildlife Protection Act of India, which presently doesn’t cover it simply because we didn’t know it existed in India,” Thakur said. “I am fairly certain that the species is threatened and requires immediate attention and protection. It has already proposed to ZSI that monitoring of the species is required.”

First published on: 09-02-2022 at 02:31 IST
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