New species of Hoolock gibbon described by Chinese-led team in southwest China
An entirely new species of gibbon (Primates: Hylobatidae) has been discovered living in the forests of the Gaoligong mountains of southwest China, according to a research team led by Professor Fan Pengfei from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and including experts from ZSL.
The discovery, detailed in a paper published in the American Journal of Primatology, describes a new addition to the genus of hoolock gibbons: already known to include two previously-described living species, the western (Hoolock hoolock) and eastern hoolock (H. leuconedys) gibbons, geographically separated by the Chindwin River.
Based on a comprehensive study of the genetic characteristics of wild gibbons and museum specimens, and assessment of coat colour patterns and tooth morphology, the team believes that the population of hoolocks distributed to the east of the Irawaddy-Nmai Hka Rivers – previously assigned to H. leuconedys – are actually morphologically and genetically distinct to those west of the river.
They are therefore calling for these animals to be recognised as a new species: the Gaoligong or ‘Skywalker’ hoolock gibbon (H. tianxing sp. nov.) – a Star Wars-inspired name reflecting the high treetop home of the gibbons, and the historical Chinese view of them as almost mystical beings.
Dr Samuel Turvey of ZSL said: “The team are thrilled to have made this discovery. However, it’s also edged with sadness – as we’re also calling for the IUCN to immediately confer Endangered status on the Skywalker hoolock gibbon, which faces the same grave and imminent risk to its survival as many other small ape species in southern China and Southeast Asia due to habitat loss and hunting. Increased awareness of the remarkable ecosystem of the Gaoligong mountains and improved conservation is essential, to ensure we have time to get fully acquainted with this exciting new species before it’s too late.”