Thursday, 25 August 2016

Secrets of how primates can live at extreme altitude revealed

New Scientist Live:

23 August 2016

By Colin Barras

It can be lonely at the top. Snub-nosed monkeys live at a higher altitude than any other non-human primate – but they are also among the rarest of all primates.

The latest genomic analyses may help to explain exactly how they have adapted to life in the thin air found in their habitat and perhaps inform their conservation.

Snub-nosed monkeys were once fairly common across Asia, before climate and geological processes conspired against them. Mountain-building activity in the area associated with the formation of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau created physical barriers that isolated monkey populations from one another.

The deterioration of environmental conditions during the last ice age helped keep those populations apart.

By about 300,000 years ago, the monkeys had been isolated for so long that they had split into five distinct species. Golden, black and gray snub-nosed monkeys live in the mountainous forests of southern China, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey inhabits northern Vietnam and the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey lives in Myanmar.

The black snub-nosed monkey has the highest elevational range of any non-human primate. It lives in a small corner of the Tibetan plateau at 3400 to 4600 metres above sea level.

Xuming Zhou and Ming Li at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, and their colleagues, have looked at snub-nosed monkey DNA for clues to how the animals survive in these challenging conditions. The researchers studied the whole genomes of 38 individuals from four of the five snub-nosed monkey species.

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