New primate species identified in China, named after Star Wars character

The research team led by Fan Peng-Fei has estimated that the skywalker species number as few as 200 in China, but a population could also exist in neighbouring Myanmar.

A new species of gibbon, an ape in the Hylobatidae family, was discovered in China by a group of scientists that also happen to be big fans of "Star Wars" films.

Mark Hamill playing character Luke Skywalker.

"Skywalker refers to the distinctive gibbon behavior of moving rapidly through the forest canopy, and it also refers to the ancient Chinese belief that gibbons were highly venerated and nearly mystical beings that were above other mortal animals", Samuel Turvey, a member of the ZSL research team, told CNN.

But researchers only confirmed it as a new species recently.

Because their "songs" - vocalizations used to connect with other gibbons - sounded different, the team of scientists were able to perform comparisons with other species and confirm that the then-unnamed Skywalker hoolock was a different kind of gibbon.

The Star Wars-inspired name reflects the high treetop home of the gibbons, and the historical Chinese view of them as nearly mystical beings, according to the team, headed by Sun Yat-sen University Professor Fan Pengfei.

The team of scientists who named the animal are not the only Star Wars fans.

The "hoolock" part of the gibbon species' name refers to the species sub-type, which live across much of Asia. "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".

"In this area, so many species have declined or gone extinct because of habitat loss, hunting, and general human overpopulation", study author Sam Turvey, from the Zoological Society of London, told BBC News.

The findings have been published in the American Journal of Primatology, a monthly peer-reviewed science journal. Pengfei and co-authors believe that hoolocks in this location - previously assigned to H. leuconedys - are actually a distinct hoolock species.

Skywalker hoolock gibbons, like all other hoolock gibbons, according to the paper, have white eyebrows and some have white beards. Male skywalkers are likewise characterized by black or brown tufts.

"Skywalker refers to the distinctive gibbon behavior of moving rapidly through the forest canopy, and it also refers to the ancient Chinese belief that gibbons were highly venerated and nearly mystical beings that were above other mortal animals", said Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London.

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