In a new study published in the journal Science, scientists detail the identification of a new species of gibbon, one that had gone extinct at some point over the past two millennia. The remains of Junzi imperialis were first discovered in 2004, when archaeologists at Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology in Xi’an discovered a mausoleum nearby the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, China‘s first emperor, which is famously guarded by thousands of terracotta soldiers. In addition to the partial skull of the gibbon, the mausoleum contained bones from numerous animals, such as panthers, lynxes, black bears and cranes. The gibbon likely would have belonged to the emperor’s grandmother, Lady Xia. “Having gibbons as pets appears to have been common among Chinese royals during ancient times,” study co-author Alejandra Ortiz told NPR.
Years after the gibbon skull was uncovered, London-based archaeologist Samuel Turvey took an interest in its unusual characteristics. The remains were discovered “a huge distance from any of China’s surviving gibbon populations,” hundreds of miles south of the tomb, Turvey told NPR, “which immediately suggested that this specimen could be something extremely interesting.” Research suggests that through deforestation, humans were the likely cause of the gibbon’s extinction. Because of the gibbon’s dependence on the tree canopy ecosystem, it is very vulnerable to the destruction of its forest habitat.
The discovery of a new, but extinct, ape species brings mixed emotions. “We feel that the discovery of Junzi imperialis is extremely important because it helps us to fill gaps in the understanding of gibbon diversity,” Ortiz said. However, the “discovery is sad, because it reinforces the idea that humans represent a major threat for the survival of species of gibbons and other apes, and our findings suggest that we have been a threat for quite a while.”