Meet Our Newest Primate Cousin, The “Star-Wars” Gibbon

A new species of gibbon has been discovered on the border of the Southwestern Chinese Province of Yunnan and Myanmar. Known as the “Skywalker Gibbon”, it takes its name from the Chinese characters which mean “Heaven’s movement”—and also because the scientists responsible for the discovery are huge Star Wars fans.

Like the Great Apes  (orangutans, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees), gibbons are closely related to humans, and belong to the same “superfamily”, Hominoidae. These “lesser apes” diverged from the Great Apes around 18 million years ago, and are both smaller and comparatively less intelligent than their Great Ape cousins.

DistributionToday, Gibbons live in Southeastern Asia and parts of India and China, with all but one of the now sixteen separate species classified as endangered. There are four known genera of gibbons. The Skywalker gibbon belongs to the genus Hoolock, which  is native to Bangladesh, Northeast India and Southwest China.The Skywalker Gibbon, Hoolock tianxing, was discovered in the Gaoligong Mountains on the border of China and Myanmar, Hoolock tianxing was originally thought to belong to an already known species — the Eastern Hoolock– until scientists discovered differences in the species’ facial features and calls. Later, genetic comparisons confirmed the existence of two separate species.

The Skywalker Gibbon is divided from other Hoolock Gibbon species in the region by a large tributary river known as the Nmai Hka. According to the discoverers, this natural barrier is most likely the reason for the species’ evolution. Gibbons don’t usually cross over large rivers, both because they can’t swim and because river forests represent an unfavorable habitat for the apes to live in.  In a nice example of how geographic isolation can form new species,  over time, gibbons on one side of the river began to diverge from those on the other side, eventually developing into the separate Skywalker species we see today.

Sadly, the discovery comes at time when the species faces the threat of extinction. There are only an estimated 200 individuals of the Skywalker Gibbon living in China, with an additional small population in neighboring Myanmar. These low numbers are attributed to habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and hunting, and scientists have petitioned the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to label the species as Endangered.

If there is any good news for the species, it’s that the name hasn’t gone unnoticed: Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films, tweeted that he was ‘so proud’ of the  Skywalker Gibbon’s new Star Wars-themed title.

For More Information:

Star Wars Gibbon is New Primate Species: BBC (January 2017)

New Skywalker Gibbon Named for Star Wars Hero: LiveScience (January 2017)

Photo Credits

  • Gibbon photos by Dr. Peng-Fei Fan – used by permission. Click here for more information on Dr. Fan’s work.
  • Map of Hoolock tianxing distributionBy Haplochromis (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Article by Devin Windelspecht. Devin is a junior at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations.  Devin is responsible for background work on many of the articles on the site, as well as some science writing.


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