New ape species

Chi­nese sci­en­tists re­clas­sify rare gib­bon

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI YINGQING in Kun­ming and CHEN LIANG in Bei­jing Con­tact the writ­ers at chen­liang@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

Chi­nese sci­en­tists an­nounced on Thurs­day in Kun­ming, Yun­nan prov­ince, that less than 200 hoolock gib­bons dis­trib­uted in the prov­ince are ac­tu­ally an en­tirely new species, known as the Gaoligong hoolock gib­bon (Hoolock tianx­ing).

In the past few years, two sub­species of hoolocks have been re­clas­si­fied as species of their own — West­ern hoolock gib­bons and Eastern hoolock gib­bons. The newly an­nounced species was orig­i­nally con­sid­ered an iso­lated pop­u­la­tion of Eastern hoolock gib­bons.

As the first ape species ever named by Chi­nese sci­en­tists, tianx­ing, which means “heaven’s move­ment” or “sky­walk­ing” in Chi­nese, are also known as Sky­walker hoolock gib­bons.

An in­ter­na­tional team of sci­en­tists led by Fan Pengfei, one of China’s lead­ing pri­ma­tol­o­gists from Sun Yat-sen Uni­ver­sity in Guangzhou, Guang­dong prov­ince, iden­ti­fied the new species and an­nounced their dis­cov­ery in a pa­per pub­lished on Wed­nes­day in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Pri­ma­tol­ogy, a monthly peer­re­viewed science jour­nal.

In 2007, Fan and his col­leagues be­gan study­ing Eastern hoolock gib­bons. Be­tween 2008 and 2009, they con­ducted a com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey in Yun­nan prov­ince and be­gan reg­u­larly mon­i­tor­ing three hoolock pop­u­la­tions, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing a large num­ber of pho­tos of the ape.

“Study­ing the pho­tos closely, I found that gib­bons in China don’t have white beards or white fur around their eyes, and they have thin eye­brows with a wider space be­tween them,” Fan said. “Male Sky­walker hoolocks have black or brown fur in their pu­bic re­gion. Their fea­tures are dif­fer­ent to Eastern hoolocks.”

Ac­cord­ing to Fan, all hoolock gib­bons have white eye­brows and some have white beards, but Sky­walker hoolocks have dis­tinc­tive down­turned brows that stand out against the black fur on their head.

In 2010, Fan made a re­search plan and in­vited more sci­en­tists to join the project. A com­pre­hen­sive study of the ge­netic char­ac­ter­is­tics of wild gib­bons and mu­seum spec­i­mens, and as­sess­ment of coat color pat­terns and tooth mor­phol­ogy fol­lowed.

Fi­nally, 15 mem­bers of the re­search team con­cluded that the pop­u­la­tion of hoolocks dis­trib­uted to the east of the Ir­rawaddy and Nmai Hka rivers are ac­tu­ally mor­pho­log­i­cally and ge­net­i­cally dif­fer­ent to Eastern hoolock gib­bons dis­trib­uted west of the rivers, and are a new ape.

Ac­cord­ing to Jiang Xue­long, a pro­fes­sor at the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Sciences’ Kun­ming In­sti­tute of Zool­ogy and co-au­thor of the pa­per, Sky­walker hoolocks are scat­tered in frag­mented forests in the Gaoligong Moun­tains in Bao- shan, Teng­chong county and Ying jiang county. They are dis­trib­uted at be­tween 500 me­ters and 2,700 me­ters above sea level.

With a pop­u­la­tion in China of less than 200 and an un­known pop­u­la­tion in Myan­mar, which is “prob­a­bly much smaller be­cause of lim­ited dis­tri­bu­tion ar­eas”, Jiang said that the team has called for the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture and Nat­u­ral Re­sources to clas­sify gib­bons as en­dan­gered.

“In the past 20 years, the gib­bon dis­ap­peared from sev­eral of its his­tor­i­cal dis­tribut­ing ar­eas in Yun­nan,” Jiang said. “For­tu­nately, half of the present pop­u­la­tion are liv­ing within the Gaoligong Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve, where they have al­ready been put un­der bet­ter pro­tec­tion.”

I found that gib­bons in China don’t have white beards or white fur around their eyes, and they have thin eye­brows.” Fan Pengfei, pri­ma­tol­o­gist at Sun Yat-sen Uni­ver­sity

ZHAO CHAO / FOR CHINA DAILY

A white-browed gib­bon lives in the Gaoligong Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve in South­west China’s Yun­nan prov­ince.

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