New Ape Species Named for Skywalker Family

Fan Peng-Fei
Fan Peng-Fei / Fan Peng-Fei

A long, long time ago when George Lucas first envisioned his epic space opera, he probably wasn’t thinking about the effect his films would have on scientific history. Yet decades later, we're welcoming another Star Wars species into the world. Scientists in China have named a rare gibbon after Star Wars’s star-crossed Skywalker family. The team described their findings in the American Journal of Primatology.

Hoolock gibbons (genus Hoolock) are fluffy, tailless apes that spend their days swinging and drifting through forest canopies in Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, and China. They’re petite for apes, averaging around 13 pounds for females and 15 for males. Every hoolock gibbon in the world belongs to one of two species—either western or eastern—or so primatologists thought.

Photos of male (top row) and female (bottom row) hoolocks from different taxa and geographic populations. Photos of H. h. hoolock and H. h. mishmiensis are from Choudhury. Image Credit: Peng-Fei et al. in American Journal of Primatology, 2017

But the gibbons in China’s Gaoligongshan nature reserve didn’t seem to belong to either. Researchers tracking the elusive apes noticed that the gibbons’ faces lacked hoolocks’ characteristic white eyebrows, and that their calls sounded strange. They snapped photos of the gibbons’ faces, then left the forest and dove into the specimen collections of museums and zoos in China, the UK, and the U.S. They compared bones and tissue samples from eastern and western gibbons with those collected from the nature reserve and found that, sure enough, they were dealing with a completely separate group.

They named the new species H. tianxing—the latter word a pinyin phrase that translates to “heaven’s movement” and references three different things: the gibbons’ graceful transit across the treetops (see one jump below); a passage from the I Ching (“As heaven's movement is ever vigorous, so must the scholarly gentleman ceaselessly strive for self-improvement”); and, of course, the Skywalker clan.

A juvenile male of H. tianxing from Mt. Gaoligong jumping across trees. Image Credit: Lei Dong

Actor and Luke Skywalker portrayer Mark Hamill took to Twitter to share his delight with the new species name.

The researchers are “thrilled to have made this discovery,” co-author Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London said in a statement. “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.”