The primates are confined to a range of about 1,100 square kilometers (425 square miles) in the Batang Toru forest in the Tapanuli districts of Northern Sumatra.
"It's the first declaration of a new great ape species in about 100 years", Ian Singleton, co-author of the study and director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, told AFP.
Previous study results combined with the new genome sequencing of 37 orangutans showed a picture that was consistent with the morphological findings.
Along with crucial morphometric and behavioral data, their genomic comparison pointed to a genetically distinct orangutan falling outside the known Sumatran (Pongo abelii) and Bornean (P. pygmaeus) species. Historically, the population had low levels of interbreeding with Sumatran orangutans further north but that completely ceased 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, according to the genetic study.
Giving it the scientific name Pongo tapanuliensis, scientists have identified this first great ape species in almost 90 years.
Scientists weren't sure the unique orangutan population existed until 1997.
"We identified three very old evolutionary lineages among all orangutans, despite only having two species now described", added Maja Mattle-Greminger, a postdoctoral researcher at UZH.
"The Batang Toru orang-utans appear to be direct descendants of the initial orang-utans that had migrated from mainland Asia, and thus constitute the oldest evolutionary line within the genus Pongo", Alexander Nater, of the University of Zurichsaid. The team of researchers believes that it is the most endangered of all surviving great apes, with only about 800 left.
Erik Meijaard of the Australian National University said: "Great apes are among the best-studied species in the world".
The team notes that we will need to quickly implement conservation measures to ensure that illegal logging, road construction, and other human threats don't impact the long-term survival of the species.
The analysis revealed that the new species split away from the others around 3.3 million years ago.
This is a photograph of Pongo tapanuliensis, a newly identified distinct species of orangutans, bringing the total number of non-human great apes to seven.
"It is crucial that we work to conserve the forest, because if we do not take the steps needed to protect the Tapanuli orang-utans, we could see their discovery and extinction within our lifetime", Dr Benoit said.
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