Jan 12, 2017

'Star Wars Gibbon' Is Discovered, Expanding Our Family Tree

When an international team of primatologists first set eyes on some noisy, rambunctious gibbons in eastern Myanmar and southwestern China, they knew something was different. The thick, white grandfatherly eyebrows of these primates was unique, and the males had fluffy tufts of white fur covering their genitals.

What's more, the movements of these gibbons were dazzling, with their seemingly effortless ability to leap high in the treetops. The name "Skywalker" from "Star Wars" came to the minds of the sci-fi fan scientists.

DNA and other analysis determined that the gibbons represent a new species, Hoolock tianxing sp. nov., which has been nicknamed "Skywalker." It is described in the latest issue of the American Journal of Primatology.

Hoolocks are the second-largest of the gibbons, after the siamang.

"We wish to see the 'Return of the Jedi,' the Skywalker hoolock gibbons, to the forests," co-author Kai He of the Chinese Academy of Science's Kumming Institute of Zoology, told Seeker, referring to how so few of these primates appear to still exist.

He and his team already believe that the gibbon should be categorized as "endangered" under IUCN criteria.

Kai He, lead author Peng-Fei Fan and their colleagues found that different species of gibbons evolved around large rivers, which are barriers to the movements of these animals.

'Skywalker' gibbon (Hoolock tianxing sp. nov.) moving from tree to tree.
Primate keeper Dannielle Stith at the Oakland Zoo in California explained that gibbons have very little body fat, and can't swim.

"Our exhibit is surrounded by a mote, which they avoid because they don't like water," Stith said.

She added that they have "super dense hair," having hundreds of additional hairs per inch than humans do. The thick coat helps to keep their skin dry in moist rainforest habitats, but is another impediment to swimming, Stith explained.

Researchers in Asia have struck species gold of late by exploring remote rivers. Kai He, for example, said that a recently discovered species of Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, Rhinopithecus strykeri, was found to be isolated from its sister species, Rhinopithecus bieti, by the Salween River.

"Rivers in southwestern China and northern Myanmar have played an important role in shaping speciations, not only in primates, but also other terrestrial species," he said.

It remains to be seen how our own species might have been shaped by barriers like large rivers, particularly early in human evolution when our ancestors had more body hair and were better adapted to life in the trees.

Gibbons are not too far down on the human family tree either, given that they are closely related to chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. They actually share many features with us, according to the Tree of Life web project, since they have no tail, maintain a semi-erect posture, have an adaptation that allows them to turn their hands palm-side upwards, have a big brain and more.

Some might even say that gibbons connect too well with us, which could explain why they are so coveted in the illegal pet trade. In some U.S. states, it is even still legal to own a pet primate.

"They're very cute," Stith admitted, admiring her own vocal charges at the zoo.

Read more at Discovery News

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