Finding the Jungle Jedi

Samuel Turvey

The Skywalker hoolock gibbon has recently been discovered in the forests of Gaoligongshan, southwest China. After previously blogging about its habitat, Dr Samuel Turvey, Senior Research Fellow at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, shares his experience of seeing the gibbons for the first time. 

Male skywalker hoolock gibbon
Male Skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing)

The easiest way to find a gibbon is by listening for its song. Gibbons live in small family groups, and early each morning the male and female will sing noisy, whooping duets that carry for long distances through the rainforest. These songs serve two functions – partly to strengthen the pair-bond between the singers, and partly to advertise the group and its territory to other gibbons. And in serving this second function, the singing gibbons can also reveal their position to eager researchers.

The word “easy” is a bit of a misnomer, however – tracking gibbons by their calls is harder than it sounds. Gibbons usually sing just after dawn, so you have to be up and ready to go even earlier, with your bowl of congee (flavourless rice porridge) already eaten, and ready to rush through the dark forest in the direction of a distant hooting sound that maybe you’re not sure you really heard at all. 

Gibbon song can sometimes carry for miles through the forest, so even if you hear it, the animals might be very far away indeed. Furthermore, it’s one thing following gibbons in flat lowland forest, but another thing in Gaoligongshan, where the last few gibbons now survive only high up in the mountains. Trying to find gibbons therefore means running in the dark through treacherous steep terrain, with muddy slopes and boulders and tree roots all waiting to trip you and send you flying. It’s a good workout.

Spending time in a Chinese tropical rainforest is a rare privilege, one that I deeply appreciate every time I do fieldwork. The biodiversity that still survives in the remaining fragments of forest in Gaoligongshan is amazing – tramping along trails and up and down slopes in search of gibbons, we found the footprints of a red panda, areas where large porcupines had been rooting through the undergrowth, and huge scratches down the trunk of a tree where an Asiatic black bear had sharpened its massive claws. And suddenly, in a tree in front of us, were two gibbons.

Adult pair of Skywalker hoolock gibbons
Adult pair of Skywalker hoolock gibbons (Hoolock tianxing)

On our first day in the forest, we were able to follow and observe a pair of hoolock gibbons – a black male and a yellow female, both with striking white eyebrows – for about eight hours. Over the course of several years of studying them, Professor Fan Pengfei and his research team had been able to “habituate” this pair – making them relatively unconcerned about the presence of nearby scientists interested in observing and studying them. The two gibbons went about their daily business in the forest canopy, not bothered by the international team of researchers watching from below – while I developed a bad case of “gibbon-watcher’s neck” from craning skywards with my binoculars. 

The gibbons would move effortlessly between branches or from tree to tree, leading us deeper through the wet forest. Sometimes they would pause to eat – usually wild fruits and leaves, but at one point one of the gibbons reached into a bird’s nest it had found and ate the eggs, an unexpected behaviour. And sometimes they would just huddle together on a branch high in the canopy, grooming each other or just resting and looking rather miserable in the pouring rain. I could imagine how they felt!

Professor Fan’s long-term research project on the hoolocks at Gaoligongshan has revealed many important aspects of gibbon behaviour, which provide essential information to help make conservation decisions for this tiny population. A better understanding of the ecological resources they require, and how different types of human disturbance affect their behaviour, helps to clarify the optimal environmental conditions that the species needs in order to survive into the future. However, Professor Fan’s research had also revealed something else. The gibbons in Gaoligongshan were not only highly threatened – they were unique.

Look out for the final blog where Sam will explain how the scientists discovered the Skywalker was a new species.

Read more about the gibbons’ habitat.

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