Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Discovery of oldest primate skeleton helps chart early evolution of humans, apes

Date:
June 5, 2013
Source:
American Museum of Natural History
Summary:
An international team of researchers has announced the discovery of the world's oldest known fossil primate skeleton, an animal that lived about 55 million years ago and was even smaller than today's smallest primate, the pygmy mouse lemur. This new fossil illuminates a pivotal event in primate and human evolution: the divergence between the lineage leading to modern monkeys, apes, and humans and the branch leading to living tarsiers--small, nocturnal tree-dwelling primates.

A newly discovered primate fossil is crucial for illuminating a pivotal event in primate and human evolution -- the divergence between the lineage leading to modern monkeys, apes, and humans (collectively known as anthropoids) and the branch leading to living tarsiers -- small, nocturnal tree-dwelling primates. The relationships between these groups are shown in this diagram.
Credit: M.A. Klingler/Carnegie Museum of Natural History

An international team of researchers has announced the discovery of the world's oldest known fossil primate skeleton, an animal that lived about 55 million years ago and was even smaller than today's smallest primate, the pygmy mouse lemur.

The new specimen, named Archicebus achilles, was unearthed from an ancient lake bed in central China's Hubei Province, near the course of the modern Yangtze River. In addition to being the oldest known example of an early primate skeleton, this almost complete new fossil is crucial for illuminating a pivotal event in primate and human evolution: the divergence between the lineage leading to modern monkeys, apes, and humans (collectively known as anthropoids) and the branch leading to living tarsiers -- small, nocturnal tree-dwelling primates. The discovery, described today in the journal Nature, also provides evidence that the earliest primates were active during the day, climbed trees, and primarily ate insects.

"Archicebus marks the first time that we have a reasonably complete picture of a primate close to the divergence between tarsiers and anthropoids," said lead researcher Xijun Ni, a scientist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. "It represents a big step forward in our efforts to chart the course of the earliest phases of primate and human evolution."

The fossil was recovered from sedimentary rock strata that were deposited in an ancient lake roughly 55 million years ago, a time of global greenhouse conditions, when much of the world was shrouded in tropical rainforests and palm trees grew as far north as Alaska. Like most other fossils recovered from ancient lake strata, the skeleton of Archicebus was found by splitting apart the thin layers of rock containing the fossil. As a result, the skeleton is now preserved in two complementary pieces, each of which contains elements of the actual skeleton as well as impressions of bones from the other side.

In order to study the entire fossil, the scientific team scanned the specimen with a world-leading level of detail and contrast using the state-of-the-art high energy x-ray facilities of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

"To reveal the remarkable secrets that have been hidden in the rock for millions of years, we undertook extensive work, applied state-of-the-art technology, and set up intensive international cooperation behind the scenes at several museums," said John Flynn, Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals and dean of the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History. "It took us 10 years."

Three-dimensional digital reconstruction of the fossil using the scans performed at the ESRF allowed the team to study the tiny, fragile skeleton of Archicebus in intricate detail.

"Speaking virtually, we made the skeleton stand up," said Paul Tafforeau, paleoanthropologist and beamline scientist at the ESRF.

The skeleton of Archicebus is about 7 million years older than the oldest fossil primate skeletons known previously. It belongs to an entirely separate branch of the primate evolutionary tree from those specimens, lying much closer to the lineage leading to modern monkeys, apes, and humans.

"Archicebus differs radically from any other primate, living or fossil, known to science," said Christopher Beard, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. "It looks like an odd hybrid with the feet of a small monkey, the arms, legs and teeth of a very primitive primate, and a primitive skull bearing surprisingly small eyes. It will force us to rewrite how the anthropoid lineage evolved."

The evolutionary relationships among primates and their potential relatives have been debated intensively for many years.

"To test these different hypotheses and determine the phylogenetic position of the new primate, we developed a massive data matrix including more than 1,000 anatomical characters and scored for 157 mammals," said Jin Meng, a curator in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Statistical analyses aimed at reconstructing Archicebus show that it would have weighed about 20 to 30 grams (about 1 ounce) as an adult. Its tiny size and very basal evolutionary position support the idea that the earliest primates, as well as the common ancestor of tarsiers and anthropoids, was miniscule. This overturns some previous scientific ideas suggesting that the earliest members of the anthropoid lineage were quite large, the size of modern monkeys.

Other authors include Daniel Gebo, Northern Illinois University, and Marian Dagosto, Northwestern University in Chicago. Funding was provided by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Basic Research Program of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the ESRF, and the American Museum of Natural History.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by American Museum of Natural History. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Xijun Ni, Daniel L. Gebo, Marian Dagosto, Jin Meng, Paul Tafforeau, John J. Flynn, K. Christopher Beard. The oldest known primate skeleton and early haplorhine evolution. Nature, 2013; 498 (7452): 60 DOI: 10.1038/nature12200

Cite This Page:

American Museum of Natural History. "Discovery of oldest primate skeleton helps chart early evolution of humans, apes." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130605133552.htm>.
American Museum of Natural History. (2013, June 5). Discovery of oldest primate skeleton helps chart early evolution of humans, apes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 19, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130605133552.htm
American Museum of Natural History. "Discovery of oldest primate skeleton helps chart early evolution of humans, apes." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130605133552.htm (accessed September 19, 2014).

Share This



More Fossils & Ruins News

Friday, September 19, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Egypt Denies Claims Oldest Pyramid Damaged in Restoration

Egypt Denies Claims Oldest Pyramid Damaged in Restoration

AFP (Sep. 17, 2014) Egypt's antiquities minister denied Tuesday claims that the Djoser pyramid, the country's first, had been damaged during restoration work by a company accused of being unqualified to do such work. Duration: 00:56 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
King Richard III's Painful Cause Of Death Revealed

King Richard III's Painful Cause Of Death Revealed

Newsy (Sep. 17, 2014) King Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and now researchers examining his skull think they know how. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Researchers Explore Shipwrecks Off Calif. Coast

Researchers Explore Shipwrecks Off Calif. Coast

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) Federal researchers are exploring more than a dozen underwater sites where they believe ships sank in the treacherous waters west of San Francisco in the decades following the Gold Rush. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Museum Traces Fragments of Star-Spangled Banner

Museum Traces Fragments of Star-Spangled Banner

AP (Sep. 12, 2014) As the Star-Spangled Banner celebrates its bicentennial, Smithsonian curators are still uncovering fragments of the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key's poem. (Sept. 12) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

More Coverage


Researchers Announce Discovery of Oldest-Known Fossil Primate Skeleton

June 5, 2013 An international team of researchers has announced the discovery of the world's oldest-known fossil primate skeleton representing a previously unknown genus and species named Archicebus ... read more
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins