As we wait patiently to see if Rey turns out to be a Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode VII, scientists have discovered a whole bunch of Skywalkers in China’s Yunnan Province. These are Skywalkers of the lesser ape variety — a new species of gibbons recently documented in the American Journal of Primatology.
The technical name for these gibbons is Hoolock tianxing but will colloquially be known as Skywalker hoolock gibbons. The name is a nod to the fact that the Chinese characters of the scientific name mean “Heaven’s movement.” But let’s be real: The main reason these gibbons are called “Skywalkers” is because the scientists are major Star Wars nerds.
While these gibbons had been observed for years, it was careful examination by a research team led by Fang Peng-Fei from Sun Yat-sen University in China that led to the realization that they were looking at a new species. These gibbons have different facial markings and “beards” than their peers living in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and other parts of China. The team suspect that there are an estimated 200 Skywalker gibbons that live in China — including the ones they encountered living in the Gaoligongshan nature reserve 2,500 meters above sea level.
Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, tweeted this morning his pleasure that the “jungle Jedi” share his cinematic namesake.
While Hamill is just trying to be a joker, gibbons are very different than gorillas. While both apes, gibbons are lesser apes while gorillas are in a taxonomic family called great apes. Adult gibbons are an average of 3 feet tall and weigh between 12 and 20 pounds. They are known for their hooting calls and their ability to gracefully and powerfully swing through the jungle — not unlike other Skywalkers that we know.
First identified by scientists in 1834, gibbons are considered the most endangered of all ape species. Gibbons are at risk because of illegal wildlife trade and loss of habitat.
“The discovery of the new species focuses attention on the need for improved conservation of small apes,” the researchers write, “many of which are in danger of extinction in southern China and Southeast Asia.”