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Gibbon Secrets

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Through the research of Southern Illinois University's anthropologist Ulrich Reichard, invaluable insights into primatology are brought to light. This is a take on primate ecology, with a special emphasis on white-handed gibbons.


The importance of primatology distinguishes itself in the roots of human representation. With primates being our closest living relatives, they make for great models of observation that allow us to discover and study the diversity of human sociality and behavior.

Such a principle fascinated Professor Reichard as he sought to understand the ways of human social organization and cognition through the interest of these species. In particular, there were the white-handed gibbons.

"What's interesting about the gibbons is their pair-living and monogamous social structures," explains Reichard. In comparison to the other primate species, this type of behavior was unusual since most primates had multiple partners and lived in larger groups with multiple males and females. As Reichard began his research with gibbons, he observed the similarities between their relationships and human relationships.

Adult male Chikyu grooming adolescent female Malai in Khao Yai National Park.

Just as gibbons practice monogamy, so do many humans. Additionally, many humans live with their close relatives and family members, just as gibbons do in their smaller social groups. In that sense, the gibbons were a great subject of research to parallel the interactive aspect of human nature.

Reproductively speaking, Professor Reichard also investigated the fertility cycles of female gibbons and their exhibited behavior towards males during this time. What he found was a distinct connection between the gibbons and the Great Apes that greatly surprised him, since the individual species had drastically different social structures.

During the reproductive period of female gibbons, they would showcase swellings that would attract the males and indicate their menstrual cycles. This meant that the basic principle of swellings was relative to the gibbons as well as other primates that were thought to be quite distinguished from them. For gibbons, however, the swellings were not that large and did not reveal the exact day the female would be most fertile. Resultantly, the male gibbons were not able to pinpoint when the females were at their peak of reproductivity.

As Professor Reichard continued with his studies, he shifted his focus to cognition. While observing the gibbons retrieving fruits from trees, Reichard and his colleagues found that this species had an astounding capacity to navigate themselves with purpose. What they saw were gibbons directly visiting different fruit trees throughout the day with goal-oriented movement.

Witnessing such behavior was a telling sign that gibbons had the foresight to check on their food sources and maintain them. This was another astonishing insight into the connection between gibbons and other primates, such as baboons, that were formerly seen as fairly distant in relation.

While observing and collecting data from gibbons in the wild, Reichard embraces the importance and beauty of silently studying them. Over the past three decades, he has immersed himself among the populations of gibbons and taught his students the significance of habituation while doing so.

Professor Reichard observing gibbons in Khao Yai National Park.

As he continues to contribute to the fascinating field of primatology, Reichard encourages more students to engage in it and understand its importance.

"Primates can allow us to see the similarities and differences between us and our relatives more directly," notes Reichard.

The incredible subject of episodic memory, or short-term memory, is a great example of an observable difference between us and our close relative species. Primates and in particular, chimpanzees, are so much stronger in their episodic memory compared to humans, and as a result, anthropologists are keen on understanding why.

In a world of ever-changing questions and possibilities, anthropology continues to grow through endless avenues of research. Oftentimes, the smallest organisms and pieces of evidence have the largest secrets to share about human history and beyond.

But is it really possible for a wild species of small apes to provide any insight into the highly developed humankind?

According to Reichard, it most certainly is.

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