Scientists use the force to discover ‘Skywalker’ gibbon

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. 

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock tianxing gibbon
Adult female Skywalker hoolock gibbon

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.”

Male skywalker hoolock gibbon
Male skywalker hoolock gibbon


Help us work for wildlife

Over 58% of the world’s wildlife has disappeared since 1970

Help ZSL to ensure that we all continue to live in a world #WithWildlife.


Or text ZSLWILDLIFE to 70300 to donate £3

More news from ZSL

An urban fox outside terraced housing

A landmark report by ZSL shows how increased urban rewilding efforts could boost wildlife and buffer city dwellers from the worst impacts of...

A dugong swimming with fish

New research shows that the Dugong - also known as the ‘sea cow’ - is functionally extinct in China, with no sightings recorded since 2008

A hammerhead shark swimming

A new study led by conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and Stanford University maps vertical movements of sharks and rays in...