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Skywalker Gibbons Discovered in Myanmar

In good news for species conservation, new populations of the wonderful ‘Skywalker’ gibbon, known to science for only 6 years, have been found in Myanmar.

An adult female Hoolock tianxing
An adult female Hoolock tianxing | Credit Peng-Fei Fan | Released

Also called the hoolock gibbon, this highly vocal creature was first described in 2017 living in on a mountain in Yunnan, China, and were named Skywalkers because the team that discovered them were big Star Wars fans. The gibbons were classified as Endangered by the IUCN as their population was estimated to be a mere 150 individuals. However, others were believed to live in Myanmar. Happily, that turned out to be correct.

These gibbons sing to each other at dawn for around 20 minutes, and seldom sleep in the same tree two nights in a row to avoid predation. Furthermore, like their Jedi namesake, Skywalker gibbons cannot swim, so rivers tend to demarcate their species boundaries.

An adult male Hoolock tianxing
An adult male Hoolock tianxing | Credit Peng-Fei Fan | Released

Population estimates conducted in 2013 suggested there might be 65,000 hoolock gibbons in Myanmar, but everything became much more complicated after the classification of the Skywalker gibbon as a separate species from the eastern hoolock gibbon in 2017.

Now, researchers from universities in England, China, and the US have conducted field expeditions in the politically chaotic country and "were able to genetically identify 44 new groups of Skywalker gibbons in Myanmar,” said senior author Tierra Smiley Evans, research faculty at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and contributing author of the study. “This is a huge resource and success story for Myanmar.”

The findings will help guide updates for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.


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