White-cheeked gibbons are one of eleven species of gibbon and critically endangered. These long-armed apes are made for life in the trees, suspending their bodies and swinging easily from one hold to another. Instead of grasping, their hands form a loose hook around branches, allowing them to move swiftly through the canopy.
What They Eat
Hanging suspended from even the thinnest branches, gibbons are able to reach their favorite food: fruit. Figs and other fruit make up most of their diet, but they will sometimes eat leaves, buds, flowers, and occasionally insects, eggs, and young birds.
Where They Live
Seldom coming to the ground, these small apes prefer the upper canopy of their lowland rainforest habitat in Laos, Vietnam, and extreme southeastern China. With long arms, they swing effortlessly from branch to branch, as if on a treetop highway.
What They Do
Gibbons live in small family groups made up of a mated pair and their young offspring. Early in the morning, the group often “sings” in unison to claim their feeding area. Instead of physical conflict, the adult pair defends its territory with a loud vocal duet that can be heard for miles through the forest.
How They’re Doing
White-cheeked gibbons are critically endangered. Their habitat is disappearing due to logging. Poaching and capturing young gibbons for the illegal wildlife trade also threaten their survival.
Where in the World
Length: 1.5-2.0 ft
Lifespan: 35-40 years in human care
Color: black (males); buff (females & young)
Where at the Zoo
Bailey, our male gibbon, was born March 1, 1994, at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. His mother died when he was 2 years old and he continued to live with his father and a sibling until October of 2001, when at age 7, he was moved to the Minnesota Zoo.
How to recognize him: Bailey has a black body and white cheek patches. During his morning song, he climbs to the highest point on gibbon island to ensure his voice carries as far as possible in every direction.
Distinguishing characteristics: Bailey is a fairly even-tempered gibbon, but not as bold as his mate Tia. For example, there is a bird on the Tropics Trail (a Bornean argus pheasant) whose call sounds similar to a gibbon alarm call. If Bailey hears it, he will often hide rather than seek to defend himself against the potential threat. Gibbons are known for their “singing,” a call designed to maintain territory and strengthen the bond between animals. As a young male new to his surroundings, Bailey didn’t call loudly like most adult male gibbons do when first arriving at the zoo. After being introduced to Tia and her mother Edith, however, he eventually found his voice.
Tia is our female gibbon. She was born October 21, 1996, here at the Minnesota Zoo, and was the last offspring born to the zoo’s original pair of gibbons, Archie and Edith. (Yes, they were named after the Bunkers.) Tia’s mom was a terrific mother, having successfully reared 6 offspring, 3 males and 3 females. Unfortunately, as her mother’s last offspring, Tia was never able watch her mother give birth and care for another infant, and she never got the opportunity to baby-sit a younger sibling. Tia’s lack of maternal experience meant zookeepers needed to hand-raise her offspring.
How to recognize her: Like other adult female white-cheeked gibbons, Tia is easily recognized by her buff-colored body and the black “cap” on top of her head.
Distinguishing characteristics: Tia’s parents, Archie and Edith, had personalities similar to their namesakes, characters on the popular TV series, All in the Family. Early in her development, keepers thought Tia might develop the “reactionary” temperament of her father Archie. As she matured her temperament mellowed, although she still remains more excitable than her mate Bailey.
Together as a Pair
Bailey was originally acquired by the Minnesota Zoo in the hopes of being paired with our female Tia, who was just reaching maturity herself at the time he arrived. White-cheeked gibbons are endangered, and any offspring successfully birthed and reared in captivity is important to the conservation efforts for their species.
When Bailey was introduced to the island with Tia and her mom, Tia was very interested in him, but their relationship was more of siblings than a mated pair. After the death of Tia’s mother in the summer of 2002, Bailey began to show more breeding interest in Tia and their pair bond strengthened.
- Gibbons are not monkeys, they’re small apes. Apes don’t have tails while monkeys do. They also have a flatter, more human-like face, larger bodies, and their young develop more slowly than other primates.
- Gibbons avoid crossing water, and major rivers usually separate each gibbon species in the wild. To drink, they dip their hands in water or rub their fur against wet leaves, then slurp up the water.
- White-cheeked gibbons “sing” to announce their presence to neighboring gibbon families and to strengthen their own family bonds. These “great calls” are a family affair, with the adult pair singing in a loud, melodic duet and their juvenile offspring joining in to practice the song.
- It’s easy to tell who’s who with an adult pair of White-cheeked gibbons. As with three other species of gibbons, the males and females are different colors. Male White-cheeked gibbons are black with white cheek patches, while females are buff with a black spot on the top of the head.
- When White-cheeked gibbons are infants, they are colored to match mom, which is fairly effective camouflage. When they reach six months of age, they turn black like their dad. Females turn back to buff when they reach maturity.
The white-cheeked gibbon is one of the world’s most endangered species of gibbon. Major threats to this species are habitat loss due to logging, illegal hunting for use in traditional medicines, and capture of young for the pet trade. Many zoos are participating in breeding programs for white-cheeked gibbons in an effort to expand the captive population. Conservation programs in the wild are needed in order to protect the current wild population.
Things the Zoo's Done/Doing
People are working to save gibbons in Minnesota and around the world. The former Minnesota Zoo Conservation Director, Ron Tilson, spent two and a half years studying the social behavior of the Mentawai Island gibbons as part of his doctoral thesis. The focus of his research was how gibbon families form and how their unique calls help families bond and maintain their territories.
The Minnesota Zoo is a member of the Gibbon Species Survival Plan (SSP), which manages all species of gibbons in North American zoos. When the zoo opened in 1978, its first gibbon pair had been orphaned in the wild, still a common fate for young gibbons. Representing wild genes, they were very important to increasing gene diversity in zoos. Sine 1981, this pair has successfully birthed 4 gibbons that have gone into the SSP pool. Their legacy lives on through cooperative breeding efforts in zoos across the country.