In a bizarre turn of events, scientists who were exploring an ancient tomb in China in 2004 discovered animal bones that have now been identified as the remains of a species of gibbon that has never been seen before.
The tomb being explored was believed to have belonged to the grandmother of Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor, who made the history books many times, most notably with his construction of the Great Wall of China. In this period of history, nobles were often buried with the remains of admired animals. This particular tomb also included the bones of bears, leopards, lynxes and a gibbon, which has never been found previously in a Chinese tomb. However, during some dynasties, gibbons were kept as prized pets.
The tomb where the remains were found is located in the city of Xi’an, in the northwestern portion of China. This area really isn’t anywhere close to the area of China where today’s surviving gibbons are located. This makes the find all the more interesting.
That remains themselves consisted primarily of facial bones. When compared to the remains of modern and extinct primates, scientists discovered that there were no matches and that they had a new species and genus on their hands. They named the new animal Junzi imperialis and were able to determine that the animal in the tomb was a young adult, larger in size than most modern gibbons and it likely ate a consistent diet of fruit.
When it comes to science, the find is significant because it suggests that apes were more diverse after the last ice age than we originally thought. There isn’t an abundance of evidence indicating the cause of the extinction of the Junzi imperialis but most scientists are comfortable suggesting that it was likely the same threats that plague primates today—habitat destruction. Modern gibbons suffer from the same deforestation, which, in turn, isolates populations and drastically shrinks their gene pools, quickly making extinction a threat.
While the discovery of a new species is exciting, it does little to alleviate the threat of modern primates. To learn more about you can help support the survival of apes and other endangered species, visit the Wildlife Conservation Society at www.wcs.org.