- Gibbons are frequently misidentified as monkeys, and few people are familiar with the taxonomic diversity represented by this primate family.
- With the inclusion of the recently discovered Skywalker hoolock, there are now 17 recognized species of gibbon, and all but one of them are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN Redlist.
- By failing to recognize the broad diversity within the gibbon family, policy makers and local stakeholders may underestimate the threat to individual species.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
At the beginning of this year, Fan and colleagues captured the attention of the media when they described a new species of gibbon that they named the Skywalker hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing), a native of the Gaoligong Mountains in Southeast Asia. The announcement was picked up by news outlets worldwide and even garnered a tweet from Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films.
Yet despite the flurry of attention, gibbons are still very much misunderstood. They are frequently misidentified as monkeys, and few people are familiar with the taxonomic diversity represented by this primate family. This situation needs to change if we hope to save these remarkable small apes from extinction.
In an effort to improve awareness of gibbons, we recently published a comment in the American Journal of Primatology with the succinct title “Overlooked small apes need more attention!” In our commentary, we briefly review the perilous position of the small apes by highlighting population declines and loss of habitat. With the inclusion of the Skywalker hoolock, there are now 17 recognized species of gibbon, and all but one of them are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The generally less well-studied species of the genus Nomascus (crested gibbons) tend to be at greatest risk, but all species are suffering from loss of habitat. On average, each species lost 11 percent of its potential habitat from 2000 to 2014. In fact, the rate of habitat loss tends to be most severe for better-studied species, which were once thought to be out of harm’s way. For example, we estimate forest habitat loss for three species (siamang, agile, and pileated gibbons) to be 20 percent or more since the year 2000 (Figure 1a, below).
Threats to gibbons are by no means unique. In fact, a recent landmark paper, Estrada et al. (2017), warns of a major extinction event that threatens the loss of half of all primate species.
Nevertheless, as gibbon researchers we have long been troubled by the lack of conservation and research interest paid to gibbons. Research on the small apes lags well behind many other primate groups, particularly the great apes (Figure 1d). Based on publications listed in the Web of Science, research on great apes outpaces small ape research by an order of magnitude. In this case, the old moniker “lesser apes” certainly holds true. This has important implications for gibbon conservation.
By failing to recognize the broad diversity within the gibbon family, policy makers and local stakeholders may underestimate the threat to individual species. But this is also a missed opportunity to study important, and in some cases cutting-edge, questions about the pattern of evolutionary change across closely related species.
The goal of our commentary was not to redirect resources away from other threatened species, but, rather, to alert governments and policymakers in countries where gibbons are found — countries like China, Malaysia, and Indonesia — to the critical threats facing these charismatic apes. Chief among these is habitat loss, but hunting and the pet trade also contribute to the continuing decline.
Stakeholders throughout the gibbon range and worldwide must work together to slow, and ideally reverse, this alarming trend.
- Estrada, A., Garber, P. A., Rylands, A. B., Roos, C., Fernandez-Duque, E., Di Fiore, A., … & Li, B. (2017). Impending extinction crisis of the world’s primates: Why primates matter. Science Advances, 3, e1600946. doi:10.1126/sciadv.1600946
- Fan P-F, He K, Chen X, Ortiz A, Zhang B, Zhao C, Li Y-Q, Zhang H-B, Kimock C, Wang W-Z, Groves C, Turvey ST, Roos C, Helgen KM, & Jiang X-L. (2017). Description of a new species of Hoolock gibbon (Primates: Hylobatidae) based on integrative taxonomy. American Journal of Primatology. 2016; 9999:e22631. doi:10.1002/ajp.22631
- Fan, P. & Bartlett, T.Q. (2017). Overlooked small apes need more attention!. American Journal of Primatology e22658. doi.org/10.1002/ajp.22658
- IUCN. (2016) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-3. Available at www.iucnredlist.org
Authors: Thad Q. Bartlett, The University of Texas at San Antonio; Pengfei Fan, Sun Yat-Sen University.
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