News about the Skywalker hoolock gibbon, which lives in forests in southwest China, was greeted with delight by actor Mark Hamill, who played the character in the films.
Hamill tweeted that he was proud to hear about the "Simian Skywalker" and "Jungle Jedi" discovered in the Gaoligong mountain forests.
A research team led by Professor Fan Pengfei from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and including experts from the Zoological Society of London ZSL, has been studying the primates since 2008.
They already knew of two species of hoolock gibbons living in the mountain forests -- the western and eastern hoolocks.
The scientists studied the gibbons in the wild and captivity over a number of years, including their genetic characteristics, coat patterns and teeth. This led them to recommend, in a paper
published in the American Journal of Primatology, that a third species be recognized -- the Skywalker hoolock, known by the scientific name Hoolock tianxing.
Tianxing, in Chinese, means "heaven's movement" or "skywalker" -- reflecting the treetop home of the gibbons and the historical Chinese view of them as almost mystical beings.
"Skywalker refers to the distinctive gibbon behavior of moving rapidly through the forest canopy, and it also refers to the ancient Chinese belief that gibbons were highly venerated and almost mystical beings that were above other mortal animals," Samuel Turvey of ZSL, a member of the research team, told CNN. "However, it doesn't hurt that this name also relates to an icon of modern popular culture."
The new species -- which has subtly different eyebrows and beards to its cousins - is under threat, Turvey said.
"The team are thrilled to have made this discovery," he said. "However, it's also edged with sadness, as we're also calling for the International Union for Conservation of Nature to immediately confer Endangered status on the Skywalker hoolock gibbon, which faces the same grave and imminent risk to its survival as many other small ape species in southern China and Southeast Asia due to habitat loss and hunting."
The researchers estimate there are less than 200 of the Skywalker gibbons in China, with some also living in neighboring Myanmar, although they are not sure how many.
"Increased awareness of the remarkable ecosystem of the Gaoligong mountains and improved conservation is essential, to ensure we have time to get fully acquainted with this exciting new species before it's too late," Turvey said.