Amazing acrobats

Gibbons are uniquely adapted to treetop life.

They’re the only mammal in the world with a ball and socket joint in their wrists (similar to our shoulders and hips). This makes their wrists much stronger and more flexible than ours, so they can swing skilfully through the branches further and faster than any other ape. In fact, they’re the quickest and most agile of all tree-dwelling mammals – apart from bats.

Gibbons can go fast enough to get a speeding ticket: the quickest ones have been clocked at 55km/h (34mph). That’s the same speed as a racehorse or greyhound at full pelt!

gibbon swinging
Photo credit: Jayashree Mazumder

Gibbons mainly get around by swinging from branch to branch: this is called brachiation. They rely on their hands much more than their feet – and, like all apes, they have no tail, making their sense of balance in the treetops even more impressive.

They can clear distances of 12m (39 ft) when swinging between branches, and jump 6m (20 ft) from a standing start. Based on our relative heights, that would be like a human flinging themselves the length of two and a half buses – or being able to jump onto the roof of a three-storey town house!

Despite being so well adapted to life in the trees, they can also walk bipedally (on two feet) with their arms raised for balance.

Can you imagine throwing yourself from a branch at 110km/h (nearly 70 mph), soaring through the air for the length two and a half buses, then landing precisely on another branch? Size for size, that’s what a gibbon can do!