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In 1867, a famous naturalist declared there were no more big animals waiting to be discovered. It seems researchers with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society didn't get the message. They've discovered several new mammals in just the last year. NPR's John Nielsen reports on their latest and most important find.

(Soundbite of animals' calls)

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

People who live and work in Tanzania's Ndundulu mountain reserve hear the calls of a huge range of primates every day, including gray-cheeked mangabey, baboon, vervet monkeys, blue monkeys and the black-and-white colobus, whose rumbling call you are now listening to.

(Soundbite of colobus call)

NIELSEN: Biologist Tim Davenport of the Wildlife Conservation Society recorded these monkey calls, and he's seen and heard all of the monkeys in question. But recently, while lurching through a dense stretch of undergrowth, he looked up and saw an unknown monkey looking back down at him. It had brown fur, a whitish tail and a long, pointy muzzle. It also had a black face and a punk-rocker's crest of hair on its forehead. `I have never seen anything like that,' he thought to himself.

Mr. TIM DAVENPORT (Biologist): Obviously I had vague ideas that it might be something new, but I guess a sense of apprehension, caution to some degree, because it was so unlikely that you would find something new in the 21st century, especially an animal which is that large.

NIELSEN: For a second Davenport thought the mystery animal was a gray-cheeked mangabey, which makes a very distinctive cry. But that possibility was blown away when Davenport's monkey introduced him to the warning call used by its species.

Mr. DAVENPORT: They crouch down. Their head is lower than their backside. And then this call just comes from somewhere below, and they shake their head and they bellow.

(Soundbite of animal's call)

NIELSEN: `That's no gray-cheeked mangabey,' Davenport thought to himself. Perhaps it's the species he'd heard local people describe as the `spirit monkey,' with the reclusive personality.

Mr. DAVENPORT: Shy. It's fairly reclusive. It lives high up in the canopy. It's hunted, so it fears humans, and it lives in difficult terrain.

NIELSEN: Davenport returned to camp to find that another biologist, Trevor Jones, had seen a monkey just like his in a different part of the Ndundulu mountains. In the current issue of the journal Science, these researchers report that the two monkeys turned out to be members of the same species. Henceforth, this reclusive spirit monkey will be known to scientists as the highland mangabey. The researchers estimate that there are fewer than a thousand of these animals left on Earth.

Davenport feels honored to be one of the first to lay eyes on the new species, but in retrospect he's not surprised.

Mr. DAVENPORT: And it shows that there's still a lot to find out there. There are a lot of areas across Africa which have not really been looked at closely.

NIELSEN: Davenport says the lowland mountains of Tanzania hold among the richest and least-explored forests left on Earth. He hopes the discovery of this new species of monkey will make more Westerners aware that forests this rich still exist and of the possibility that they might not exist much longer. Tom Struhsaker, a primate expert at Duke University, says the threat to these forests isn't coming from miners or from commercial logging firms.

Mr. TOM STRUHSAKER (Duke University): But what is happening instead is the burgeoning population of Tanzanians themselves are moving into these forests, doing a lot of snare-trapping for animals, which, of course, catches a lot of these monkeys that come to the ground. They're cutting a lot of the trees for timber and for building poles. And in some places they're starting to encroach for establishing, you know, small-scale farming.

NIELSEN: Struhsaker and others have been urging the government of Tanzania to increase and expand protected zones inside these forests. But to do that they'll have to find a way to keep the attention of aid groups focused on this region. `Maybe somebody can discover some more new species,' he says. Davenport hopes to oblige.

Mr. DAVENPORT: We're following some interesting leads in other parts of the southern highlands as well. So I really don't think the story's finished yet.

NIELSEN: Research teams have already returned to the Ndundulu forests.

John Nielsen, NPR News.

LUDDEN: You can get a good look at the mangabey and hear its cry at our Web site, npr.org.

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