As The Rise of Skywalker hits cinemas, Susan Cheyne spotlights a primate with a Star Wars link.
‘Skywalker’ hoolock gibbon
Why is this gibbon named after a Star Wars character?
Its species name is tianxing, which translates to ‘heavenly movement’ in Chinese, reflecting its graceful brachiation (arm swinging) through the trees as well as the important status gibbons have in culture and mythology. The scientists who named it were fans of Star Wars and felt ‘sky walker’ accurately described the movement of this endangered species. Using links to popular culture is a really effective way to promote conservation outreach and increase public awareness.
Why did this species appear on the Primates in Peril list in 2019?
This gibbon was only described as a distinct species in 2017, through detailed genetic analysis and comparison of museum specimens. Because of this there has been little focused conservation attention on it. There are only about 200 of these gibbons left in the wild that we know of, so the IUCN felt that now was the time to put this species on the list to raise awareness and much-needed conservation funding and action.
Why is it threatened?
One major threat is the current civil unrest in Myanmar. Habitat fragmentation in China is another big threat. Like all gibbons, it needs forests to survive and connectivity of those forests for the dispersal of young adult gibbons from their family groups. The further break up of this habitat could be disastrous for their survival.
What have we learnt so far?
We know about its population distribution in China, and a bit about its behaviour, including how it spends some of its time. These gibbons prefer to sleep in tall trees, use different trees each night and go to bed early, all to avoid nocturnal predators. In the future, I’d like to discover whether the species is still present and surviving in Myanmar, too. Research is underway to understand how these gibbons use their forest home and interact socially. Leoma Williams
SUSAN CHEYNE is vice chair of the IUCN Section on Small Apes.
FIND OUT MORE Read the Primates in Peril report: bit.ly/primateperil
These are the gibbons we’re looking for: only 200 remain.