Analyze This: Ropes restore a gibbon highway through a rainforest

Simple bridges may reconnect forest habitats separated due to human activities

Simple rope bridges like this could help connect forests fragmented by human activities, a new study finds. That could be good news for critically endangered Hainan gibbons (one shown) and possibly other species

Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, B.P.L. Chan et al/Scientific Reports 2020

Scampering or climbing along ropes, Hainan gibbons (Nomascus hainanus) can now cross a great gully carved by a landslide.

These endangered primates live in the forest on China’s Hainan Island. A 2014 landslide had damaged the preferred route that these tree-dwelling apes took through the forest. They could cross by vaulting across the gap, catching onto a palm frond. But when the frond started to sag, researchers rushed to provide a safer way.

The gibbons were slow to adopt the new route. But they increasingly traveled a bridge made of two ropes across the 15-meter (49-foot) gap. The scientists shared their success October 15 in Scientific Reports.

When people build roads or other structures in a forest, it can carve animal habitats into fragments. This can split populations into smaller groups that may struggle to survive, says Bosco Chan. A conservation biologist, he works at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden in Hong Kong.

Only about 30 Hainan gibbons remain. Chan and his team were worried about a group of nine that had been affected by the landslide. They wanted to prevent the animals from getting hurt while jumping. So the researchers built a rope bridge.

About 176 days after the bridge went up, cameras caught the gibbons taking to the ropes. “I was very excited when [the gibbons] first started using it,” Chan says. Eventually, the team observed the gibbons crossing the bridge about as often as the gibbons had traveled that stretch of forest before the landslide.

The Hainan gibbons’ adoption of the bridge suggests that other primates may also use rope bridges in fragmented forests, says Susan Cheyne. Based in Oxford, England, Cheyne studies primates. She also serves as vice chair of the IUCN Primates Section on Small Apes. This community of experts works to save gibbons and related species. These gibbons are a “relatively fickle species,” says Cheyne, who advised the Hainan project. “They are not overly keen on using new things,” she says.

The gibbon group’s two females and two small juveniles favored crossing on the bridge. But an adult male never used it and three nearly grown juveniles rarely did. An infant always made the crossing carried by a female. The bridge provides a temporary solution while trees, including native transplants, grow in to fill the forest gap.

Data dive:

  1. Looking at the pie charts, which is the most common way that gibbons use the bridge?
  2. Which is the least common way for gibbons to cross the bridge? Why do you think this is?
  3. How does the way that small juveniles cross the bridge differ from how females cross?
  4.  Why do you think females and small juveniles used the bridge most?
  5. This bridge was made of two ropes, one above the other, connected to trees. What other designs can you imagine for a rope bridge? What other materials might work as a “bridge” for these gibbons?

Carolyn Wilke is a former staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.

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