Extinct gibbon found in Chinese tomb

Junzi imperialis is a newly described extinct gibbon from China. Credit: Samuel Turvey/ZSL. Junzi imperialis is a newly described extinct gibbon from China. Credit: Samuel Turvey/ZSL.

About 2,200 years ago, a Chinese noblewoman was buried in a tomb with a menagerie of animals, including 12 horses, a leopard, a lynx and a species of gibbon unknown to modern science. The new ape, identified using detailed cranial and dental measurements as a new genus and species — Junzi imperialis — may represent the first ape to have gone extinct due to human influence after the last ice age.

The tomb, found in the ancient capital city of Chang’an, likely belonged to Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, according to a new study in Science. Historical accounts describe gibbons living across China until about 200 years ago. Today, four species of gibbon, all highly endangered, still live in tiny pockets of southwestern China.

The Holocene fossil record of gibbons and other primates in China is extremely limited, making the entombed gibbon especially valuable to scientists interested in Asian apes. “Our description of J. imperialis suggests that past human-caused primate diversity loss may be underestimated, with important implications for understanding extinction vulnerability and informing conservation,” wrote Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London and colleagues. 

Mary Caperton Morton

Mary Caperton Morton

Morton (https://theblondecoyote.com/) is a freelance science and travel writer based in Big Sky, Mont., and an EARTH roving correspondent.  

Friday, October 26, 2018 - 06:00

Did you know ...

The digital edition of EARTH Magazine is a free subscription for members of AGI's Member Societies.  Find out more!

EARTH only uses professional science journalists and scientists to author our content?  In this era of fake news and click-bait, EARTH offers factual and researched journalism. But EARTH is a non-profit magazine, and at least 10 times more people read EARTH than pay for it. As advertising revenues across the media decline, we need your help to ensure that we can continue bringing you the reliable and well-written coverage of earth science you know and love. Our goal is not only to inform our readers, but to inform decision makers across the economic and political spectrum about the science of our planet. So, we need your help. By becoming a subscriber or making a tax-deductible contribution to support EARTH, you can fund our writers and help make sure the world knows about our planet.

Make a contribution