ANU helps identify new species of ‘Skywalker’ gibbon

18 January 2017

I'm very excited, and delighted my 50 year old data has contributed to a modern discovery.

An Australian National University (ANU) researcher has helped identify a new species of primate which has been named the 'Skywalker Hoolock gibbon' - partly because the scientists that made the discovery are Star Wars fans.

Renowned biological anthropologist Emeritus Professor Colin Groves of the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology has been working in the field of species classification for more than 50 years.

Whilst studying museum specimens of Hoolock gibbons in the 1960s Emeritus Professor Groves realised that there were actually two related yet distinct species.

"I detected there were two different species separated by the Chindwin River in Myanmar," Emeritus Professor Groves said.

"There were certain proportional differences in the teeth and skulls in particular. Externally there are quite clear differences in the markings as well, highlighted by the male's white pubic tassel."

Emeritus Professor Groves named the new species 'Hoolock leuconedys', from the Latin terms 'leuco' meaning white and 'nedys' meaning groin.

Half a century after the discovery, Chinese researchers led by primatologist Peng-Fei Fan were looking at Chinese primate populations including Hoolock leuconedys. On close inspection Fan believed there was actually a third separate species.

The team contacted Emeritus Professor Groves who was able to provide his original study data and help confirm that Fan's suspicions were correct.

"The female has much reduced white on the face and the male's white streaks above the brows are thinner with more space between them," Emeritus Professor Groves said.

"DNA analysis later confirmed they were in fact a new species."

Fan's team named the new species Hoolock tianxing or commonly the Skywalker Hoolock gibbon because the Chinese characters of its scientific name mean "Heaven's movement", and also because the scientists are Star Wars fans.

Emeritus Professor Groves, who has had the honour of naming more than 40 species of animals that he has discovered throughout his career, is happy that some of his oldest research is still being used today.

"I'm very excited, and delighted my 50 year old data has contributed to a modern discovery."

The discovery was published in the American Journal of Primatology.