Paleo Profile: Catalonia’s Little Ape

A restoration of Pliohates. Art by M. Palmero.
A restoration of Pliobates. Art by M. Palmero.

What did the last common ancestor of living apes look like? That’s a difficult question to answer. Today’s apes – gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and ourselves – are varied and specialized primates with relatively sparse fossil records. Depending on which paleoanthropologist you ask, then, the last common ancestor of today’s apes was either small and gibbon-like or more like a great ape, with gibbons hanging from a dwarfed branch of the family tree.

Pliobates might help resolve the debate. Described by David Alba and colleagues, this 11.6 million year old ape was on the evolutionary “stem” leading to the last common ancestor between the gibbons and the great apes. Rather than being a large-bodied primate, though, Pliobates was relatively small and more gibbon-like in form, an adept climber with some ability to swing beneath the branches of the Miocene forest.

Not that Pliobates was one of our direct ancestors. Molecular evidence suggests that the split between gibbons and the rest of the apes occurred between 16 and 17 million years ago, long before this newly-named ape. Instead, Alba and coauthors write, Pliobates is more of a “persistent type” – an archaic remnant of the apes that led up to the major hominoid division. More fossils will help outline how the actual transition occurred, but, for now, Pliobates is an echo of what our forebears might have been like at the dawn of the apes.

A reconstruction of Pliobates. From Alba et al., 2015.
A virtual reconstruction of the Pliobates skull. From Alba et al., 2015.

Fossil Facts

Name: Pliobates cataloniae

Meaning: Pliobates is a reference to the primate’s intermediate place between Pliopithecus and gibbons (Hylobates), while the species name honors where the fossil was found.

Age: About 11.6 million years old.

Where in the world?: Catalonia, southeastern Spain.

What sort of critter?: An Old World monkey – or catarrhine – closely related to the last common ancestor of today’s apes.

Size: About 10 pounds.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: A partial skeleton including elements of the limbs and a skull.

Reference:

Alba, D., Almécija, S., DeMiguel, D., Fortuny, J., Pérez de los Ríos, M., Robles, J., Moyà-Solà, S. 2015. Miocene small-bodied ape from Eurasia sheds light on hominoid evolution. Science. doi: 10.1126/science.aab2625

Previous Paleo Profiles:

The Unfortunate Dragon
The Cross Lizard
The South China Lizard
Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon
The Fascinating Scrap
The Sloth Claw
The Hefty Kangaroo
Mathison’s Fox
Scar Face
The Rain-Maker Lizard
“Lightning Claw”
The Ancient Agama
The Hell-Hound
The Cutting Shears of Kimbeto Wash
The False Moose
“Miss Piggy” the Prehistoric Turtle
Mexico’s “Bird Mimic”
The Greatest Auk

When Monkeys Surfed to South America

Long ago, about 36 million years before today, a raft of monkeys found themselves adrift in the Atlantic. They’d been blown out to sea by an intense storm that had ripped up the African coast, and now a mat of floating vegetation was the closest thing to land for miles in all directions. But luck was with them. Thanks to a favorable current, they were thrown onto the beach of a new continent – South America.

I’ll admit that this scenario requires a little scientifically-informed imagination. No one has ever found a fossilized huddle of monkeys clinging to battered vegetation in ancient ocean sediments. But we know that such events must have happened in the past. Teeth tell the tale.

In the latest issue of Nature, paleontologist Mariano Bond and colleagues describe a handful of fossil teeth found in the rainforest of Peru. Some are mysteries, too incomplete to identify down to genus or species, but a set of three molars are clearly from a new species of early monkey.

Three teeth might not seem like much to name a new animal, but, fortunately for paleontologists, mammals have always had very distinct teeth that tend to get fossilized even when the rest of the body decays. From the cusps and ridges, Bond and coauthors were able to narrow down the identity of this animal to a monkey that was about the size of a modern day tamarin. They’ve named it Perupithecus ucayaliensis.

At about 36 million years old, Perupithecus pushes back the arrival of monkeys on South America 10 million years earlier than previously thought. And even better, the molars of Perupithecus closely resemble those of Talahpithecus – an early monkey that lived around the same time in northern Africa. This doesn’t mean that Perupithecus was directly descended from Talahpithecus. Rather, it’s a another strong sign that the ancestors of New World monkeys were accidental migrants from Africa.

Perupithecus, or its immediate ancestors, probably arrived on rafts of storm-tossed vegetation. There wasn’t an overland route for the primates to make the same journey. Even though South America and Africa were once connected, they had drifted apart by 110 million years ago – long before the evolution of primates, much less monkeys. South America stayed an island continent from then until its collision with Panama about 3 million years ago. There was no other way from monkeys to get from Africa to South America except by sea. The monkeys that thrive in the Americas today, from tamarins to muriquis, are the descendants of prehistoric primates fortunate enough to survive the journey.

Reference:

Bond, M., Tejedor, M., Campbell, K., Chornogubsky, L., Novo, N., Goin, F. 2015. Eocene primates of South America and the African origins of New World monkeys. Nature. doi: 10.1038/nature14120