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Trending Science: The cautionary tale of an ancient Chinese tomb, an emperor’s grandma and an extinct ape

A strange, long-forgotten ape species has been discovered in a royal temple in central China. Scientists say this should be a wake-up call to the world.

Fundamental Research

A team of scientists unearthed the skull and jaw of the extinct gibbon in Shaanxi province inside a royal burial chamber that was built about 2 300 years ago. Named Junzi imperialis by the team, this previously unknown genus and species of gibbon may be the first ape to have become extinct due to humans. The findings were published in the journal ‘Science’. Did humankind play a direct role in the eventual demise? The Junzi was likely widespread in the region at the time and may have survived until the 18th century, the study says. Researchers believe the Junzi became extinct because of past human activities, which likely included deforestation and hunting. Until now, there had been no evidence of humans directly causing extinction among our closest relatives. “There’s very little known about primate extinctions – almost nothing,” study co-author James Hansford, a postdoctoral research associate with the Zoological Society of London, told ‘National Geographic’. “Just establishing the fact that it existed is a hugely important thing.” Hansford and other scientists discovered the bones while examining the tomb’s contents. It was first excavated in 2004 and contained 12 burial pits with animal remains. They believe the burial chamber, and possibly the gibbon, may have belonged to Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang. Also uncovered were the bones of black bears, cranes, leopards, lynx and several other domestic animals. Gibbons are the smallest apes, known to be the fastest, non-flying tree-dwelling mammals in the world. They’re also more closely related to humans than they are to any monkey. According to an article announcing the findings published in ‘Science’, they were revered as regal primates and often kept as high-status pets in Imperial China. Gibbons don’t exist in this part of China anymore. The study explains that this discovery may indicate an unidentified biodiversity of primates that flourished throughout Asia. A grave that comes with a warning Today, over 12 different species of gibbon live in the rainforests of north-east India, southern China and Indonesia. Most are either threatened or near extinction. All surviving Chinese species are currently classified as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Quoted by ‘CNN’, Hansford said: “What’s outstanding about this study is that it represents a unique genera, that it’s something that is genuinely new to science. But it also represents the first known human-driven primate extinction that we know of as well.” He added: “We thought that they had historically been much more resilient to human effects, but in fact they’ve actually been suffering for much longer than we thought. This will hopefully highlight the plight of gibbons and other primates in particular.” No one can say for certain that humans wiped the gibbons off the planet. But it does serve as a reminder that species extinction caused by human actions isn’t just a modern problem. Have we been underestimating the negative impact we have on the natural world? The animal kingdom may already have the answer.


United States