New gibbon species named after Star Wars' Luke Skywalker

A new species of gibbon identified in remote forests in China has been named after Star Wars character Luke Skywalker.

Thursday, 12th January 2017, 11:29 am
Updated Thursday, 12th January 2017, 11:56 am
Skywalker gibbon

Scientists studying hoolock gibbons in the Gaoligong mountains of south west China, along its border with Burma, have concluded they are a new species of primate.

The conclusion comes following genetic analysis of wild gibbons and museum specimens and assessing coat colour patterns and teeth, according to the researchers from China, the US and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Skywalker gibbon

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It was previously thought they belonged to one of the two already-known species of hoolock gibbons, a type of primate found in Bangladesh, India, China and Burma, where they live among the trees, feeding mostly on fruit as well as leaves and shoots.

The species has been called the Skywalker hoolock gibbon or Gaoligong hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), with the Star Wars-inspired name reflecting the treetop home of the primates - and revealing the scientists are fans of the franchise.

In response to the news, Star Wars actor Mark Hamill tweeted: "So proud of this! First the Pez dispenser, then the Underoos & U.S. postage stamp... now this!", referring to other things which have featured his character Luke Skywalker.

But the animals are facing illegal hunting and destruction, damage and fragmentation of their habitat.

Skywalker gibbon

The scientists, writing in the American Journal of Primatology, recommend the Skywalker hoolock gibbon is classed as "endangered" under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species system.

And they said: "The discovery of the new species focuses attention on the need for improved conservation of small apes, many of which are in danger of extinction in southern China and Southeast Asia."

Dr Samuel Turvey of the 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."

The Gaoligong mountains are a hotspot for discovering new species, according to the scientists, with other primates and amphibians among the creatures newly identified in the difficult-to-access region.