A new gibbon

Samuel Turvey

A new species of gibbon was recently discovered in the forests of Gaoligongshan, southwest China: the Skywalker hoolock gibbonIn the last of a three part blog, Dr Samuel Turvey, Senior Research Fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, explains how scientists discovered the Skywalker was a new species.

Scientists have known about the existence of a population of gibbons in Gaoligongshan, the mountainous region of southwestern Yunnan Province in China, for a century. However, these animals were always thought to be a population of the eastern hoolock gibbon, which was also known to live east of the Chindwin River in Myanmar. Gaoligongshan’s gibbons were apparently part of a more widely distributed species, so while important for local Chinese biodiversity, they were supposedly nothing unique.

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock tianxing gibbon
Adult female Skywalker Hoolock gibbon in Gaoligongshan, China

Surprisingly often, though, we scientists don’t know the full story about the status of a particular population of animals. There is a huge global diversity of species – around 5,500 mammal species alone – with relatively few researchers available to specialise on them, and with many species found in remote areas of the world that can be difficult to reach because of geography or politics. 

Gaoligongshan is one such place. The methods used by scientists to define the levels of variation within species, the differences between species – and even what we think of as a “species” – have also changed over time. Together, these factors help to make science such an exciting discipline, as there is always something new to learn about the evolution and diversity of life – and meaning that there is always a chance that you could become the first person to discover a new species.

Although gibbons have long been known to exist in southwestern Yunnan, the population in Gaoligongshan has been the focus of little previous research. A couple of specimens were collected by a visiting American museum expedition in the early twentieth century, where they languished largely forgotten in a museum drawer.

Only a couple of decades later, the political situation in China changed, making it almost impossible for foreign researchers to visit the country, and preventing Chinese scientists from carrying out any research themselves on gibbons. It is only in the last few decades or so that the Chinese research team, led by Professor Fan Pengfei, has been able to return to Yunnan and establish a proper research programme on the gibbons of Gaoligongshan, which has allowed us to understand what these animals really are.

Male skywalker hoolock gibbon
Male Skywalker hoolock gibbon - the twentieth species of gibbon

When western scientists first encountered gibbons in Gaoligongshan 100 years ago, there were only thought to be a few different gibbon species, and so the Gaoligongshan animals were assigned to one of these well-recognised existing types. In the years that followed, however, studies of gibbon populations across south and south-east Asia revealed more and more variation between individuals from different geographic regions – variation in their appearance, in the sound of their songs, and in their genetic composition and relationships. An increased understanding of the evolutionary processes that lead to the formation of new species also showed that these different populations were typically separated by geographic features such as large rivers, which would have acted as barriers to gibbons, and so would have encouraged local isolation and independent evolution.

By the time that we started to consider the status of the gibbons from Gaoligongshan, other wild gibbon populations from India to Java had been classified into 19 different species. But our research into the patterns of fur colouration and tooth structure of the Gaoligongshan gibbons, together with genetic analysis of animals from this population, showed that these gibbons were different to any of the other 19 species. This matched what we knew about their geography – they were isolated from other hoolock gibbons by the massive Irrawaddy River, and they were further isolated from surrounding landscapes by the steep Gaoligongshan mountains. The Gaoligongshan gibbons had evolved into something unique – the twentieth species of gibbon, which we named Hoolock tianxing, or the “Skywalker gibbon”.

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