What happens when scientists who are also Star Wars fans discover a new species of ape? We get the Skywalker hoolock gibbon.

The Force-sensitive moniker is a nod to the gibbons' lofty treetop home in the forests of the Gaoligong mountains in southwest China. What's more, their scientific name – Hoolock tianxing – references the words "heaven's movement" or "skywalker" when spelled out in Chinese characters. It's an apt title for an animal that gets around mainly by swinging from branch to branch.

The research team was led by Professor Fan Pengfei from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and included experts from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). 

The gibbons had actually been on the scientists' radar for some time, but it's only recently that careful analysis of their genetic characteristics, as well as their coat patterns and dentition, confirmed them as a separate species. 

The world's hoolock gibbons are native to eastern Bangladesh, Northeast India and Southwest China. This particular Chinese population – which is separated from others in the region by a large river system – was initially assigned to an already existing species, but the researchers noticed that the gibbons' coat markings were just a little different, reports the BBC. Gibbons are also known for their impressive vocal displays, and this group of hoolocks had its own unique sound.

Combined, these differences are enough for the apes to be recognised as a new species, the researchers say. "The team are thrilled to have made this discovery," said ZSL's Dr Sam Turvey.

The original Luke Skywalker also approves.

But like many recent species finds, this one comes with a note of warning.

"[The discovery is] also edged with sadness – as we're also calling for the IUCN to immediately confer Endangered status on the Skywalker hoolock gibbon, which faces the same grave and imminent risk to its survival as many other small ape species in southern China and Southeast Asia due to habitat loss and hunting," Turvey said.

According to the most recent survey data, the total population size of Hoolock tianxing in China stands at fewer than 200 individuals, surviving in fragmented groups across different forest areas.

"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," Turvey said.

The findings were published in the American Journal of Primatology.


Top header image: Photograph: Fan Pengfei/ZSL