New species of extinct gibbon discovered in Chinese tomb

Humans may be responsible for the extinction of a newly discovered species of ape, as early as 2200 years ago.
22 June 2018


Skull of newly discovered gibbon, Junzi imperialis.


Humans may be responsible for the extinctions of a new species of apes as early as 2200 years ago, according to researchers at the Zoological Society of London...

Gibbons are small apes commonly found in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Previously, zoologists knew of 20 surviving species that are categorised into four genera. But now, researchers have made a remarkable discovery.

James Hansford and his colleagues at the Zoological Society of London have identified a new genus of gibbon from remains found in the tomb of an ancient Chinese noblewoman. The remains are thought to be approximately 2200 years old.

The gibbon remains were found alongside those of eleven other animals, including a black bear and other domestic mammals and birds, suggesting that the gibbon was a part of a personal menagerie, or exhibition of exotic animals. This intepretation fits because, in ancient China, gibbons were considered symbols of nobility.

As a result, the team have named the new gibbon Junzi imperialis. Junzi is a philosophical term in the Chinese language referring to "gentleman", and imperialis is Latin for “emperor”.

The buried noblewoman is thought to have been the grandmother of China’s first emperor, and Hansford speculates that the gibbon was a pet or an animal of significance, although the team are uncertain about the role the gibbon might have served during its lifetime. What they are certain of is that the animal belongs to an entirely new genus and species.

DNA analysis has not been performed yet, but the "goofy" skull and teeth of the creature are unlike any surviving species, marking out the creature as a new species, sitting in its own genus.

"What it is, is distinctly different. Most of the specimen we have left is largely the cranial plate - the front of the face of the gibbon. And that is, in particular, semi-flattened. And it has perhaps a slightly smaller face in proportion to the living gibbons,” explains Hansford.

So if this animal existed over 2000 years ago, and was clearly known to humans, where has it gone since? Some speculate that ape extinctions caused by humans is not just a modern problem.

"It has often been thought that they have been relatively resistant to human interventions in the past,” says Hansford. "What we do know now is the fact that there have been historical primate extinctions, particularly this gibbon."

The team are also focusing on conserving the Hainan black-crested gibbon, which is a type of species found only on the Hainan Island in China. "There’s only 26 individuals of that species left living in a tiny forest fragment,” says Hansford. “Given the fact that we know that they’re already vulnerable to having their habitat destroy and possibility of hunting, we have to consider the conservation of these species in the coming years and for the future..."


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