The Black Snub-Nosed Monkey: Differentiating and Discovering Suitable Habitat Using MODIS Land Cover Products and ASTER Digital Elevation Models

Jun 09, 2020

On the border of Myanmar and China, a very cute creature was discovered recently. Known as the black snub-nosed monkey, researchers came across it in Myanmar in 2010, and across the border in Pianma on the western slopes of the Gaoligong Mountains, in Yunnan, China, the following year. The black snub-nosed monkey is a relatively new subspecies of the monkey genus Rhinopithecus. This species of snub-nosed monkey is extremely rare and considered endangered, with a total population of fewer than 950 (Geissmann and others 2011; Chi and others 2014). According to the International Union of Conservation Scientists, the black snub-nosed is the most endangered of the known snub-nosed monkey species. This monkey occupies a very specific region of the world that contains moist evergreen broad-leaved forests and coniferous broad-leaved mixed forests (Geissmann and others 2011; Chen and others 2015) at a particular elevation. Identifying and observing the habitat of this monkey can be difficult, but with data from NASA’s LP DAAC researchers can gain clues on where these monkeys might thrive and how their habitat is changing over time.

What holds the endangered species to this distinct area? The answer may lie in its diet. The region contains a type of lichen that flourishes at 3,000 to 4,500 meters (m) (10,000–15,000 feet (ft)). These lichens grow in the coniferous forest that the black snub-nosed monkey calls home. The ability to digest lichen is extremely rare in primates. Black snub-nosed monkeys use their fermenting gut (much like a cow) to break down the lichen and use its nutrients. Since both the monkeys and the lichen are found at these elevations, researchers can use Terra Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) Global Digital Elevation (GDEM) (ASTGTM) to identify elevations in the region where the monkeys might be found for future conservation efforts or to identify suitable areas where the monkey may reside.

Suitability model of Black Snub Nosed Monkey habitat using MCD12Q1 and ASTERGDEM from 2018.

The left map shows an overview of the area of interest on the Myanmar/China border using bands 1, 4, 3 from the Terra MODIS Surface Reflectance 8-Day L3 Global 500 m SIN Grid product to show true color. The map on the right contains both the Terra ASTER GDEM and the Combined Terra and Aqua MODIS Land Cover data products to display suitable areas in the region for the black snub-nosed monkey. Areas where either the evergreen or deciduous broadleaf forest overlaps with the needed elevation (10,000–15,000 ft) are sparse.

Granule IDs:









Boundary source:
Global Administrative Unit Layers (GAUL) dataset, implemented by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) within the CountrySTAT and Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) projects.

Using the Combined Terra and Aqua Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Land Cover Type (MCD12Q1) Version 6 data product, champions of the endangered species can show black snub-nosed monkey habitat loss in the small region on the Myanmar and China border. These data provide global land cover classification layers at yearly intervals from 2001 to 2018. These layers give researchers an idea of how land cover has changed over time.

From 2001 to 2018 the amount of evergreen broadleaf forest in the region has undoubtedly shrunk, but there is some good news on the horizon for the monkey. As recently as 2016, the Chinese government decided to scrap plans in the region for several dams and instead convert the area into a national park. Known as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” the large canyon that holds the Salween River will be given national park status—Nujiang Grand Canyon National Park—which will increase the amount of protected area in the region. The Myanmar government is also planning a protected area on their side of the border: Imawbum National Park. Both parks will protect crucial habitat areas for the black snub-nosed monkey. Both countries also signed a trans-boundary agreement in 2015 to quell illegal wildlife trade and logging. In the future researchers will be able to use datasets from the LP DAAC like the Combined Terra and Aqua Land Cover data to help inform how those protected areas have changed and whether more conservation or protection efforts will be needed to save this newly known species.

With a small population and an extremely small footprint, the species still faces an uphill battle, but with the conservation changes being implemented by China and Myanmar, the black snub-nosed monkey now has a fighting chance.

Material written by Jared Beck1

1 KBR, Inc., contractor to the U.S. Geological Survey, Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA. Work performed under USGS contract G15PC00012 for LP DAAC2.

2 LP DAAC work performed under NASA contract NNG14HH33I.


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Geissmann, T., Lwin, N., Aung, S.S., Aung, T.N., Aung, Z.M., Hla, T.H., Grindley, M., and Momberg, F., 2011, A new species of snub-nosed monkey, genus Rhinopithecus Milne-Edwards, 1872 (Primates, Colobinae), from northern Kachin state, northeastern Myanmar: American Journal of Primatology, v. 73, no. 1, p. 96–107, at

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Top Image Courtesy of: Rod Waddington/ CC BY-SA 2.0