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Hidden groups of Skywalker gibbons found through their love songs

Scientists have made a thrilling discovery about the elusive Skywalker gibbons, confirming a significant population of these endangered primates in Myanmar. The research was fueled by the unique “love songs” that are sung by gibbon couples each morning.

The study marks the first confirmation of the species in Myanmar in over a century and significantly expands our understanding of their distribution.

Study significance 

The Skywalker gibbon, named for the “Star Wars” saga, was recognized as a distinct species in 2017. At that time, fewer than 200 individuals were documented, all within China’s borders. However, a recent study has shattered this geographic limitation, identifying new groups of Skywalker gibbons in Myanmar. 

The researchers have unveiled the largest known population of Skywalker gibbons on Earth, previously believed to be confined to southwestern China.

Success story 

The study was led by the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis and the newly formed Myanmar Skywalker Gibbon Conservation Committee. Field expeditions were conducted by partner organizations, including Nature Conservation Society Myanmar and Fauna & Flora International – Myanmar.

“We were able to genetically identify 44 new groups of Skywalker gibbons in Myanmar,” said senior author Tierra Smiley Evans. “This is a huge resource and success story for Myanmar.”

Living under the radar

The exact number of Skywalker gibbons in these newly identified groups remains undetermined. However, their presence in areas previously thought to be inhabited by the Eastern hoolock gibbon suggests that the largest probable population of Skywalker gibbons has been living undetected until now. 

Initial estimates from 2013 speculated the existence of up to 65,000 gibbons in these regions, although current numbers are likely lower due to hunting, limited protected areas, and ongoing political unrest in Myanmar.

Focus of the study 

For the investigation, the experts collected chewed plants and fruits for non-invasive DNA sampling. They also used acoustic monitoring systems that captured the gibbons’ morning serenades. 

The innovative study approach was crucial in confirming the presence of Skywalker gibbons. These methods, combined with photograph analysis and local threat assessment surveys, have not only expanded the known habitat range of these gibbons but also underscored their adaptability and the critical need for targeted conservation efforts.

Critical new insights 

The discovery of Skywalker gibbons in Myanmar, particularly in the degraded forests of Southern Shan State and as far south as Kachin State, challenges previous assumptions about their habitat preferences and resilience. 

This finding is a testament to the importance of local knowledge and community involvement in conservation research, especially in regions where political unrest and safety concerns limit external scientific exploration.

Study implications 

As the study’s findings are integrated into the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the researchers advocate for the continued designation of the Skywalker gibbon as an endangered species. They emphasize the urgent need for Myanmar and China to extend and enhance conservation measures to these newly identified geographic areas.

“We found Skywalker gibbons in two regions of Myanmar: Kachin state and as far south as Shan state, in degraded forests and at much lower elevations than we expected, showing us they’re highly adaptable,” Evans said. “There needs to be a protected area system there that focuses on them.”

More about Skywalker gibbons

Skywalker gibbons, scientifically known as Hoolock tianxing, are a species of hoolock gibbon found in the forests of Myanmar and China. They were named “Skywalker” due to the meaning of their Chinese name, which reflects the idea of moving swiftly through the treetops, akin to the movement of a Jedi, a reference to the Star Wars saga. 


Skywalker gibbons are characterized by distinctive markings on their eyebrows and a generally lighter coloring compared to other hoolock gibbons. They are omnivorous, feeding on a variety of fruits, leaves, and occasionally insects. 

Social lives

Like other gibbons, they are known for their agility and their ability to brachiate through the trees with remarkable speed. They live in small, territorial family groups, and their vocalizations, which include a complex series of hoots, barks, and other sounds, play a crucial role in communication and maintaining the bonds within these groups. 


Unfortunately, the Skywalker gibbons are facing threats from habitat loss, fragmentation, and hunting, leading to their classification as endangered. Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure the survival of this unique species, emphasizing habitat protection, anti-poaching measures, and research to better understand their ecology and behavior.

Image Credit: Peng-Fei Fan

The study is published in the International Journal of Primatology.

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