Gibbons are small arboreal apes that display an accelerated rate of evolutionary chromosomal rearrangement and occupy a key node in the primate phylogeny between Old World monkeys and great apes. Here we present the assembly and analysis of a northern white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) genome. We describe the propensity for a gibbon-specific retrotransposon (LAVA) to insert into chromosome segregation genes and alter transcription by providing a premature termination site, suggesting a possible molecular mechanism for the genome plasticity of the gibbon lineage. We further show that the gibbon genera (Nomascus, Hylobates, Hoolock and Symphalangus) experienced a near-instantaneous radiation ~5 million years ago, coincident with major geographical changes in southeast Asia that caused cycles of habitat compression and expansion. Finally, we identify signatures of positive selection in genes important for forelimb development (TBX5) and connective tissues (COL1A1) that may have been involved in the adaptation of gibbons to their arboreal habitat.