Research by UCLA life scientists and 50 colleagues sheds new light on the biological differences among more than 150 species of monkeys in South America, many of which are endangered. Their findings could be particularly important in shaping efforts to conserve the biodiversity of primates in South America.
The scientists have resolved a dispute over whether a small population of black-headed squirrel monkeys (Saimiri vanzolinii), which are found only in an isolated part of Brazil, is a sub-species of another species or its own species. “We found strong evidence that it’s a distinct, separate species,” said co-author Jessica Lynch Alfaro, an adjunct assistant professor in the department of anthropology in the UCLA College and a member of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. “It’s its own unique group.”
The scientists, who hail from the U.S. and six other countries, used genetic and statistical analysis to find that this group of monkeys split from its sister group, called Saimiri ustus, about 500,000 years ago, and from a group called Saimiri boliviensis approximately 1.3 million years ago. Researchers previously had thought that Saimiri boliviensis and Saimiri vanzolinii were the same species. The understanding that Saimiri vanzolinii is its own distinct group is particularly significant because the monkeys’ survival is being threatened by climate change. “They may lose all of their habitat,” Lynch Alfaro said. “This species has the smallest, most restricted habitat of any Amazonian primate, and it has been predicted that the habitat may be drastically altered due to changes in weather patterns as a result of global warming.”
The research was a collaboration among Lynch Alfaro; Michael Alfaro, a UCLA associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; and an international team of primatologists. The results are published in 14 papers in a special January issue of the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution; Alfaro and Lynch Alfaro are senior authors of four of the studies.