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New Gibbon Genus Discovered in Ancient Chinese Tomb

|| June 24: 2018: UCL News || ά. Bones of an entirely new but already extinct genus of gibbon have been discovered in China, showing the magnitude of human-caused extinction of primates, according to a study by UCL and Zoological Society of London:ZSL. The discovery was made by scientists while studying the contents of a burial chamber in Shaanxi Province, central China and the findings were published in Science.

The ancient tomb dates from around 2,300 years ago and, possibly, belonged to Lady Xia, grandmother to China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, the leader, who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors. The tomb, first excavated in 2004, was found to contain 12 burial pits with animal remains, which included gibbon bones. Sophisticated computer modelling shows that these ancient bones represent an entirely new genus and species of gibbon, which the team has named Junzi Imperialis.

Historical records show that Junzi, probably, survived until less than 300 years ago. Professor Helen Chatterjee, UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment, an expert on gibbons, worked with colleagues to measure key points on the skull and teeth found in the tomb, which were, then, compared to the dimensions found in the four genera of gibbons living today.

Their in-depth analysis showed that the skull and molars differed by so much that the bones belong to a separate genus to today’s gibbons. “It’s not surprising that Junzi Iimperialis is distinct from current gibbon populations as the mammals naturally become isolated from each other in tree tops and can’t cross gaps in the canopy.

Even, today’s four genera have different numbers of chromosomes.” Said Professor Chatterjee. Gibbons are the smallest apes and are characterised by their distinctive song and long arms, which they use for moving through the forest canopy by a form of locomotion, called, brachiation.

They have played an important role in Chinese culture for thousands of years, being present in ancient literature and art. However, despite, probably, having a venerated status, Junzi became extinct due to past human activities, likely to have included deforestation and hunting. All of the world’s apes, chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans and gibbons, are threatened with extinction today due to human activities but no ape species was thought to have become extinct as a result of historic hunting or habitat loss until now.

The demise of Junzi highlights the vulnerability of gibbons in particular. “Our discovery and description of Junzi Imperialis suggests that we are underestimating the impact of humans on primate diversity.

These findings reveal the importance of using historical archives, such as, the archaeological record to inform our understanding of conservation and stress the need for greater international collaboration to protect surviving populations of gibbons in the wild.” said Lead Author, Dr Samuel Turvey, ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

Eastern and Southeast Asia are currently home to some of the world’s most threatened mammals, with 73% of Asian primates being threatened, compared to 60% globally.

Two species of gibbon have recently disappeared in China and all surviving Chinese species are currently classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. The Hainan gibbon, Nomascus Hainanus, a species of gibbon found on Hainan Island in southern China, is now, probably, the world’s rarest mammal, with only 26 surviving individuals.

Caption: Junzi cranial reconstruction and skull: Image: Dr Samuel Turvey and Professor Helen Chatterjee:::ω.

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