Tag Archives: primate

We’ve discovered a new, adorable species in Myanmar — it’s already on the brink of extinction

A new species of primate has been discovered in the forests of central Myanmar. The diminutive animal is a leaf-eating tree-dweller with a distinctive mask-like face framed by unruly grey hair. However, it’s probably already on the brink of extinction.

The newly discovered Popa langur. Image credits Thaung Win.

Christened as the Popa langur after an extinct volcano where the largest known group of these monkeys live (around 100 individuals), the species has likely existed for at least a million years, the study reports. But estimates place the species’ living population at somewhere between 200 and 250 individuals, so the researchers are calling for it to be classified as “critically endangered”.

Small and rare

“Just described, the Popa langur is already facing extinction,” said senior author Frank Momberg, a researcher at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), in Yangon.

The species is feeling extreme pressure from “hunting, habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation caused by agricultural encroachment, and illegal or unsustainable timber extraction” throughout all of its natural range, the study found, which helps explain how its numbers got so low.

The species was first discovered in the backrooms of the London Natural History Museum. Genetic analysis of specimens gathered in British Burma more than a century ago revealed that some specimens belonged to a new species. Feces samples recovered by Momberg and his colleagues in the forests of central Myanmar matched those specimens, showing that the mysterious langurs were still alive and kicking.

Finally, in 2018, the team managed to capture one such langur on camera, revealing their distinctive look. Trachypithecus popa, or T. popa for short, has a grey-brownish and white belly, with black hands and wrists. Its tail stands nearly a meter long, and the whole animal weighs around 8 kilograms (18 pounds) — around twice the weight of your typical house cat.

“Additional field surveys and protection measures are urgently required and will be conducted by FFI and others to save the langurs from extinction,” said Ngwe Lwin, a primatologist with FFI’s Myanmar program.

The team also carried out a genetic analysis, based on mitochondrial genomes of 41 specimens, to get a broader picture of the evolutionary history of the langur family. They found that the four distinct groups that make up this family (all are currently endemic to Asia) diverged from a common ancestor some four million years ago. T. popa has been a distinct species for at least one million years, they add.

Several of the 20 known langur species worldwide are critically endangered. Hopefully, research such as this one can lead to them not disappearing.

The paper “Mitogenomic phylogeny of the Asian colobine genus Trachypithecus with special focus on Trachypithecus phayrei (Blyth, 1847) and description of a new species” has been published in the journal Zoological Research.

30 million years ago, a group of monkeys sailed from Africa to South America

Millions of years before humans were doing any exploring, a group of monkeys made an epic, presumably involuntary journey across the Atlantic.

Researchers have traced this journey using a key fossil find: four teeth uncovered in Peru, belonging to primates that lived only in Africa.

Drying screen-washed sediment near the Santa Rosa fossil site. Image credits: Erik Seiffert.

The banks of Río Yurúa, turned out to be a valuable trove for paleontologists. Here, 32-million-year-old rocks contain a strange mix of things you’d expect and things you wouldn’t. Alongside the remnants of bats, capybaras, and early New World monkeys, researchers also found evidence of a second primate group: a group known as parapithecids, who only lived in Africa.

“This is a completely unique discovery,” said Erik Seiffert, the study’s lead author and Professor of Clinical Integrative Anatomical Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC. “It shows that in addition to the New World monkeys and a group of rodents known as caviomorphs—there is this third lineage of mammals that somehow made this very improbable transatlantic journey to get from Africa to South America.”

The study was based on only 4 teeth — but sometimes, that’s all you need to tell a paleontological story. To the untrained eye, these 4 teeth would look similar to those found in the Americas, but to experienced paleontologists, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The new molars were almost identical to those of the parapithecid Qatrania, which is known from sites that I worked in the Fayum area of Egypt,” Seiffert also says.

Teeth of the newly discovered Ucayalipithecus primate in Peru resemble those of primates that lived in northern Africa as early as around 56 million years ago. Image credits: Erik Seiffert.

The species is new to science (Seiffert and colleagues named it Ucayalipithecus perdita), but the group to which it belongs is clear — the African group. So how did African primates reach South America?

To answer that question, we need to look at the geology at the time.

“It is likely that the ancestors of this new species arrived via a transatlantic rafting event when sea levels dropped at the Eocene–Oligocene transition ∼32 to 35 million years ago,” the study authors note.

The Eocene-Oligocene transition was actually an extinction event marked by a decrease in sea levels. The glaciers in Antarctica were slowly building up at the time, which caused Africa and South America to be a little closer by land than they are today. The 1,770 miles that separate the two continents now would only have only been about 900-1,300 miles during that geological period.

“We’re suggesting that this group might have made it over to South America right around what we call the Eocene-Oligocene Boundary, a time period between two geological epochs, when the Antarctic ice sheet started to build up and the sea level fell,” said Seiffert. “That might have played a role in making it a bit easier for these primates to actually get across the Atlantic Ocean.”

However, even 900 miles would have been a hell of a passage — so how did they (or their ancestors) do it? As unlikely as it sounds, Seiffert believes they arrived to the Americas on a raft.

It’s not the first time something like this would have happened. The ancestors of Madagascar lemurs, for instance, reached the island by rafting from mainland Africa over more than 260 miles, and small mammals or lizards have been known to raft even longer distances. It’s not intentional (the primates weren’t exactly boldly going where no primates have gone before), but this type of long travel can sometimes happen.

But the bizareness of the situation doesn’t elude Seiffert.

“The thing that strikes me about this study more than any other I’ve been involved in is just how improbable all of it is,” said Seiffert. “The fact that it’s this remote site in the middle of nowhere, that the chances of finding these pieces is extremely small, to the fact that we’re revealing this very improbable journey that was made by these early monkeys, it’s all quite remarkable.”

Journal References:

  • E.R. Seiffert at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA el al., “A parapithecid stem anthropoid of African origin in the Paleogene of South America,” Science (2020).
  • M. Godinot at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, France el al., “Rafting on a wide and wild ocean,” Science (2020).

Gorillas and humans treat their territory the same way, study finds

Gorillas seem to be very territorial, a new study shows, but they seem to understand ‘ownership’ similarly to humans.

Image credits Christine Sponchia.

The study is the first one to demonstrate that gorillas are territorial in nature, unlike previous assumptions. At the same time, the findings suggest that these primates can recognise “ownership” of specific regions in a very human-like manner, and will attempt to avoid contact with other groups while travelling close to the centre of neighbouring ranges in order to avoid conflict.

Which seems like the polite thing to do!

My turf, your turf

“Gorillas don’t impose hard boundaries like chimpanzees. Instead, gorilla groups may have regions of priority or even exclusive use close to the centre of their home range, which could feasibly be defended by physical aggression,” says lead author Dr. Robin Morrison, who carried out the study during her PhD at the University of Cambridge

“Our findings indicate that there is an understanding among gorillas of ‘ownership’ of areas and the location of neighbouring groups restricts their movement.”

Because their home ranges often overlap, and because they’re quite peaceful to other gorilla groups, gorillas have long been assumed to be non-territorial. This would make them markedly different from chimpanzees, who have no qualms about using extreme violence to protect their home turf.

The new study, however, suggests that gorillas are, in fact, territorial animals — but they also display quite nuanced behavior around the issue. The study focused on monitoring the movements of the western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) at the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. These animals are notoriously difficult to track, so the team placed video cameras at 36 feeding “hotspots” across a 60-square-km area of the park to help them monitor eight different groups of gorillas.

The team reports that the movements of each group are strongly influenced by the location of their neighbours, being less likely to feed at a site visited by another group earlier that day. They would also try to steer clear of the centre of their neighbours’ home range.

“At the same time groups can overlap and even peacefully co-exist in other regions of their ranges. The flexible system of defending and sharing space implies the presence of a complex social structure in gorillas,” explains Dr Morrison.

“Almost all comparative research into human evolution compares us to chimpanzees, with the extreme territorial violence observed in chimpanzees used as evidence that their behaviour provides an evolutionary basis for warfare among humans,” says co-author Dr Jacob Dunn from the Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).

Dr. Dunn adds that the findings showcases our similarities with the wider primate family, not just with chimpanzees. Observing the way gorillas interact over territory — setting up small, central areas of dominance and wider liminal areas of tolerance of other groups — could help us better understand early human populations. Just like us, he explains, gorillas have the capacity to both violently defend a specific territory and to establish between-group ties that lead to wider social cooperation.

The paper “Western gorilla space use suggests territoriality” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Pair bonding may be the foundation of human and primate societies

New research into primate social structures offers insight into how human social life is organized.

Image via Pixabay.

Primates can develop quite complex social structures — just look at ours, we’re primates too. But exactly what made this family of species move towards a group rather than individual lifestyle? That’s what Luca Pozzi from the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Department of Anthropology, in collaboration with Peter Kappeler at the German Primate Center-Leibniz Institute for Primate Research, set out to understand.

The duo identified pair bonding as a key transition system between solitary and community lifestyles.

Our better halves

“The evolution of complex social systems in mammals, and more specifically in primates, is a challenging and exciting area of research. Our study shows that pair living—although rare—might have played a critical role in it,” says Pozzi.

“Living as a pair represents an evolutionary puzzle in the evolution of mammalian social systems because males could achieve higher rates of reproduction if they did not bond to a single female”.

Pozzi explains that social systems can work as an adaptive tool. Species need to adapt to their environmental conditions, he says, which is the same process that drives biological evolution. However, a modification of social behavior can accomplish the same goal at a much faster pace than natural selection. Among half of all primate species live in groups, he adds, while a third only form pairs; the rest (roughly one third) enjoy solitary lifestyles.

In order to understand what drives this behavioral adaptation process, which factors shape it, and how many times it occurred in the past, the team analyzed genetic data and behavioral observations of 362 primate species. The team found that the transition from a solitary way of life towards living in groups most often occurred through pair bonding. Thus, the propensity to form long-term pairs can be seen as the first step towards complex social structures, they explain.

There are two current hypotheses on the development of pair bonding, the team explains: the female spacing hypothesis and the paternal care hypothesis. The first hypothesis holds that “females pursue reproductive strategies that are not limited by the number of mates but by access to resources,” and that under certain conditions (such as high competition for food) females may spread out, limiting males’ ability to monopolize access to multiple females. The second one basically boils down to the idea that males may choose to focus on a single female because she either needs his help in raising the offspring (for protection, care, or provision) or to reduce the risk of strange males committing infanticide. Either way, the male in question enjoys greater net reproductive success even if he limits his mating opportunities. Evidence is mixed for both hypotheses, the team adds.

Up to now, the assumption was that these two hypotheses were mutually exclusive. But the team found that they were actually complimentary.

An initial ecological change led the females of a species to separate in space. Solitary males, which previously had several females living in their territory, were now only able to gain access to one female and started to invest more in their offspring to increase their chances of survival — thus reinforcing pair living. A further transition to group living was made possible through an improvement of the ecological situation, which allowed related females to live in close proximity once again, and they could then be joined by one or more males.

“However, the pair bond typical for humans within larger social units cannot be explained with our results, since none of our recent ancestors lived solitarily. Nevertheless, the advantages of paternal care also may have led to a consolidation of pair living in humans,” said Kappeler.

The paper “Evolutionary transitions towards pair living in non-human primates as stepping stones towards more complex societies,” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

‘Cursed’ yet adorable aye-aye has a sixth ‘pseudothumb’

Exclusively found in the north-eastern parts of Madagascar, the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) is a dark-brown or black primate, distinguished by a bushy squirrel-like tail that is larger than its body, bat-like ears, and an over-sized, slender middle finger. But although the species has been known to science since the mid-1800s, scientists have just now discovered that the aye-aye has a sixth digit — a tiny pseudothumb that likely helps the creature grip branches.

The aye-aye uses its exaggeratedly long middle finger to forage for food, typically insects lying within hollow branches. The primate first uses its keen ears to listen for the activity of unsuspecting grub, after which it uses its rodent-like incisors to gnaw through the bark of the branch to make an opening for its middle finger, which is slender enough to nudge right through the hollow tree branch. The finger has a ball-and-socket joint, similar to a human shoulder, which allows a fantastic degree of motion. At the tip of the finger, the aye-aye has a hooked nail that can snag and drag out prey.

Unfortunately for our adorable-looking aye-aye, humans on the island don’t think of it too fondly. Its bizarre appearance is frightening to the locals, and its eery call doesn’t help too much in this regard. According to ancient Malagasy legends, the aye-aye is considered a symbol of death. The natives believe if an aye-aye ever points its middle finger at you, then death will surely soon befall. For this reason, the poor aye-ayes are often killed on sight by superstitious locals. Due to this persecution, as well as habitat loss, the aye-aye is listed as critically endangered, with experts estimating fewer than 1,000 individuals left in the wild. Perhaps that middle finger is rightfully called for.

The aye-aye’s newly found pseudothumb. Credit: Adam Hartstone-Rose.

New anatomical insights, however, are making things more complicated. According to a new study led by Adam Hartstone-Rose, a biologist at North Carolina State University, the aye-aye actually has six digits, which means there’s no actual middle finger. Take that!

“The aye-aye has the craziest hand of any primate,” says Adam Hartstone-Rose, associate professor of biological sciences at NC State. “Their fingers have evolved to be extremely specialized – so specialized, in fact, that they aren’t much help when it comes to moving through trees. When you watch them move, it looks like a strange lemur walking on spiders.”

The reason why it hasn’t been found thus far has to do with the pseudothumb’s anatomy. The bone itself is very small, whereas the rest of the finger is mainly made of cartilage and muscle, which doesn’t show up on X-rays.

The researchers found the tiny thumb by accident while they were employing dissection digital imaging techniques on six aye-ayes. They noticed that one of the hand tendons split from the base of the thumb, heading towards a wrist bone called the radial sesamoid (humans don’t have it).

“Using these digital techniques allows us to visualize these structures in three dimensions, and to understand the organization of the muscles which provide movement to the digit,” says Dickinson, who built the digital model of the anatomy and is co-first author of the paper.

“The pseudothumb is definitely more than just a nub,” Hartstone-Rose says. “It has both a bone and cartilaginous extension and three distinct muscles that move it. The pseudothumb can wriggle in space and exert an amount of force equivalent to almost half the aye-aye’s body weight. So it would be quite useful for gripping.”

According to the researchers, the aye-aye’s elongated middle finger gymnastics doesn’t allow for a very good grip on branches. Like the panda, which also has a pseudothumb, the aye-aye likely uses this extra digit to grasp branches. Besides the aye-aye and pandas, moles also have six digits, which they employ to move more dirt.

“Other species, like the panda bear, have developed the same extra digit to aid in gripping because the standard bear paw is too generalized to allow the dexterity necessary for grasping,” Hartstone-Rose says. “And moles and some extinct swimming reptiles have added extra digits to widen the hand for more efficient digging or swimming. In this case, the aye-aye’s hand is so specialized for foraging an extra digit for mobility became necessary.

“Some other primate species have reduced digits to aid in locomotion. The aye-aye is the first primate to dial digits up in the hand rather than dial them down. And it’s amazing that it’s been there the whole time, in this strangest of all primates, but no one has noticed it until now.”

The findings were described in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Tooth.

Fossil Friday: tiny tooth belonged to the smallest monkey ever found

An 18-million-year-old fossil tooth points towards a tiny primate no heavier than a hamster.

Tooth.

Scan of the fossil tooth.
Image credits Richard F. Kay et al., (2019), JoHE.

The lonesome tooth was found in Peru’s Amazon jungle by a team of Peruvian and American scientists from an exposed river bank along the Río Alto Madre de Dios. A single upper molar, the specimen was just “double the size of the head of a pin” and “could fall through a window screen,” said first author Richard Kay, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

Tiniest monkey

“Primate fossils are as rare as hen’s teeth,” said Kay, who has been doing paleontological research in South America for nearly four decades.

The team found the tooth after sorting through roughly 2,000 pounds of sandstone and gravel collected along the Río Alto Madre de Dios. They report finding hundreds of fossils of rodents, bats, and other animals — but a single monkey tooth. Luckily, it was a molar.

Paleontologists can tell a lot from primate teeth, but molars are particularly telling. Judging from its shape and size, the authors estimate that the animal likely had a diet heavy on fruits and insects, and weighed under half a pound. Some of the larger monkeys in South America today can grow to over 50 times that weight. The team dubbed the animal Parvimico materdei, or “tiny monkey from the Mother of God River.”

“It’s by far the smallest fossil monkey that’s ever been found worldwide,” Kay said.

 

But, its diminutive size isn’t the only thing that sets this tooth apart. It’s also one of the precious few clues scientists have from a missing chapter in monkey evolution. Primates are believed to have arrived in South America some 40 million years ago from Africa, and quickly diversifying into the 150-plus New World species we know today. The details of how that process unfolded is a bit of a mystery, however, in large part due to a gap in the fossil record (for primates in the area) between 13 and 31 million years ago. Parvimico lies comfortably in that gap.

The new fossil is aged between 17 to 19 million years, “smack dab in the time and place when we would have expected diversification to have occurred in the New World monkeys,” Kay said.

The tooth is now housed in the permanent collections of the Institute of Paleontology at Peru’s National University of Piura. The team is currently on another fossil collecting expedition in the Peruvian Amazon until August, concentrating their efforts in remote river sites with 30-million-year-old sediments. They hope to find more primate fossils.

The paper “Parvimico materdei gen. et sp. nov.: A new platyrrhine from the Early Miocene of the Amazon Basin, Peru” has been published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Human brain.

Research identifies a gene that makes our brains (and those of primates) unique

Research has identified one gene that makes primate brains unique — including our own.

Human brain.

Image credits John Beal / Department of Cellular Biology & Anatomy, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Shreveport.

Great apes and humankind owe their high-achieving brains to a single gene. Called PLEKHG6, this gene drives certain aspects of brain development in a different direction in primates as compared to other mammals, the team reports.

Bigger, better, faster brains

“Broadly speaking, this gene can be thought of as one of the genetic factors that make us human in a neurological sense,” says Dr. Adam O’Neill, lead researcher on the study.

The study aimed to determine if primate brains develop differently from those of other animals. The hypothesis was that this leads to higher cognitive power and increased size, but also potential issues tied to the organ’s increased complexity. More to the point, these genetic differences would predispose humans and primates to neurological or psychiatric conditions that other animals are just too simple to develop.

“Such genes have been hard to find,” O’Neill explains, which is why they decided to study sick, rather than healthy, brains. They looked at the genomes of children with a certain brain malformation called periventricular nodular heterotopia. This condition sees a subset of neurons fail to move to their correct spot in the brain as the organ develops, resulting in a range of symptoms such as epilepsy or delayed development.

“We found a ‘damaged’ genomic element in a child that had the attributes of such a primate specific genetic factor,” he explains.

The team used cultured “mini-brains” to study the condition. This technique involved coaxing harvested skin cells to transform into tiny brain-like structures in the lab. All in all, the team found that a particular genetic change in PLEKHG6 which disables one of its components altered the gene’s ability to support the growth and development of stem cells in the brain.

It was previously known that these cells behave differently in primates than other animals, but not which gene regulated their activity, says professor Stephen Robertson, who supervised the research — O’Neill carried it out as part of his Ph.D. at the University of Otago. The present study shows that a particular component of the PLEKHG6 is the regulator and that it was acquired relatively recently in our evolutionary history.

Dr O’Neill says there are very few primate-specific elements in our genome. This discovery adds to a very short list of genetic factors that, at least in one sense, make us human. The work also helps provide more information about the list of genes that are altered to cause this particular type of brain malformation.

“Such an understanding positions us to better understand how a brain builds itself- knowledge that will add to our ability to design strategies to repair the damaged brain, especially early in infancy where there are still lots of stem cells around,” he says.

“Personally, I also think it does underscore how it is very subtle nuanced differences that separate us from other animals. Our anthropocentrism could be a whole lot more humble.”

The paper “A Primate-Specific Isoform of PLEKHG6 Regulates Neurogenesis and Neuronal Migration” has been published (PDF link) in the journal Cell Reports.

Grooming claws.

Fossils reveal that primates initially had nails and claws, we just lost the latter ones

If you like having nails instead of claws, give a shout-out to society.

Nails.

Image credits Daniel Nebreda.

Unlike other mammals, us humans and our primate cousins sport nails instead of claws. However, this wasn’t always the case — new fossil evidence shows that ancient primates had specialized grooming claws as well as nails. The findings showcase how primate social structure helped shift claw and nail evolution, the team writes, and overturns our assumption that the earliest primates had nails on all their fingers.

Nailed it

“We had just assumed nails all evolved once from a common ancestor, and in fact, it’s much more complicated than that,” said Jonathan Bloch, study co-author and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Grooming goes beyond just looking good. The thick body hair of primates is an ideal habitat for ticks, lice, and a whole host of other creepy crawlies which are both annoying and potential health hazards. As such, the ability to remove these pests formed an evolutionary advantage — and they evolved specialized grooming claws for the purpose. Many primates today retain such claws. Lemurs (subfamily Lemuroidea), lorises (subfamily Lorinae), and galagoes (family Galagidae) have grooming claws on their second toe, while tarsiers (family Tarsiidae) boast them on their second and third toe.

Up to now, we’ve believed that grooming claws developed independently across several primate lineages up to those alive today. However, new fossil evidence suggests that such claws are, rather, a key feature — they date back at least 56 million years, to the oldest-known primates.

Back in 2013, the study’s lead author Doug Boyer found several curious primate fossils at the University of California Museum of Paleontology. These fossils — distal phalanges, the bones that make the tips of fingers or toes — were hidden in sediment samples collected in Wyoming several decades earlier; as often happens, however, they were left waiting in a drawer in the archives. Based on the shape of these fossils, Boyer suspected that their owners sported grooming claws — in general, distal phalanges topped with a claw will be more narrow and tapered, while those supporting a nail will be flat and wide.

Grooming claws.

Lemurs, lorises, and galagoes have nails on most digits and grooming claws on their second toes, as seen on the feet of two greater slow lorises, Nycticebus coucang, in the Florida Museum mammals collection.
Image credits Kristen Grace / Florida Museum.

Bloch’s work involved material recovered from Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. He discovered what initially looked like a “strange, narrow nail” bone, but on later comparison with modern specimens “it looked just like a tarsier grooming claw,” he recounts. Although smaller than a grain of rice, the bone matched the proportions of grooming claws of Teilhardina brandti, a mouse-sized, tree-dwelling primate.

Claw me, claw thee

These were the first hints that the fingers of early primates had grooming claws. To get to the bottom of things, the duo went out to Omomys Quarry, Wyoming, a site once inhabited by an early primate family, Omomys. Here, they found omomyoid grooming claws at three sites spanning 10 million years in the fossil record. The fossils proved beyond a doubt that early primates sported grooming claws.

Why, then, don’t we have some as well?

“The loss of grooming claws is probably a reflection of more complex social networks and increased social grooming,” said Boyer, an associate professor in the department of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

“You’re less reliant on yourself.”

This hypothesis could also explain why some species of (more) solitary primates, such as the titi (subfamily Callicebinae) or owl monkeys (family Aotidae) have re-evolved a grooming claw.

But why develop nails in the first place? The team believes it came down to shifts in how primates got around. As climbing, leaping, and grasping took center stage, claws simply became impractical — whereas nails wouldn’t snag or get in the way of anything.

Furthermore, the claws provide new insight into the lives of ancient primates, the team notes, many of which are only known from fossil teeth. Even these tiny claws can offer insight into how our ancestors moved about, their daily behavior, and their social structures.

“We see a bit of ourselves in the hands and feet of living primates,” Bloch said. “How they got this way is a profoundly important part of our evolutionary story.”

The paper “Oldest evidence for grooming claws in euprimates” has been published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Fossil skull alesi.

Tiny, fossilized ape skull brings us closer to the common human-ape ancestor, fuels debate over humanity’s place of birth

An almost perfectly preserved, 7 million-year-old primate skull comes to fuel the debate around humanity’s cradle of birth.

N. alesi skull.

Image credits Fred Spoor / AFP.

Anthropologists have been dying to get their hands on fossil evidence of the human-ape evolutionary split ever since we figured out that it must’ve happened. Three years ago, on a dusty trail in Kenya, Providence might have delivered them just one such prize. The catch, however, is that the fossilized skull is about the size of a baseball and comes from an infant individual. So it’s a bit of a mixed blessing, as it can help us piece together a rough idea of what the common ancestor of humans and apes looked like — but does little to settle other debates.

A Lucky Find

The skull is surprisingly well preserved for its age and was found in the Turkana Basin, northern Kenya, some 3 years ago. The team, led by primate paleontologist Isaiah Nengo of De Anza College in Cupertino, California, were working with Kenyan fossil hunter John Ekusi on excavations close to Lake Turkana. It hadn’t been a decidedly average day until Ekusi walked back to the jeep to light a cigarette — and found himself in surprising company.

“There was this skull just sticking out of the ground,” Nengo recalls. “It was incredible because we had been going up and down that path for weeks and never noticed it.”

It obviously once belonged to a primate, and the researchers sent it to the Noble Gas Laboratory at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for argon isotope dating, revealing that it was about 13 million years old. Turkana Basin was a lush rainforest during that time, an ideal habitat for apes and other primates.

The skull resembled that of a modern gibbon, Nengo says, but teeth shape and dental patterns tie it closer to one other genus of Miocene primates found in Kenya, Nyanzapithecus. The skull’s molars, however, are much larger than those of known nyanzapithecines, which suggested a new species altogether. The researchers named it N. alesi after the Turkana word for “ancestor.”

Fossil skull alesi.

Image credits Christopher Kiarie / AFP.

It was then sent to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, for extremely high-detail X-ray imaging study. This allowed the team to count growth lines in the skull’s (still unerupted) adult teeth. These indicated that the animal was about 485 days (or 1 year and 4 months) old when it died. The imaging also showed bony ear tubes embedded in the skull, which likely acted as a balance organ.

And those tiny little tubes have a big implication. Whether Nyanzapithecus was an ape or monkey line has been a hotly topic, but these tubes, along with the shape and size of the teeth, solidly mark N. alesi — and by extension all nyanzapithecines — as apes, the team reports. Even more, these tubes signal a direct link to the ape line from which humans and modern apes originate.

Bones plz

That’s a finding that could put a long-lasting debate of humanity’s birthplace to bed. Finding a common man-ape ancestor in Africa tips the scales heavily in favor of this continent. But the debate is far from settled, because what the tiny skull giveth it also taketh away.

The problem is that most headway in anthropology research is based on comparative analysis. That’s a fancy way of saying that anthropologists spend a lot of time comparing similar fossils to create an evolutionary roadmap. It works really well if you have fossils to compare — but that’s not the case here. We didn’t find any other infant Miocene-ape skull apart from this one. So although it could offer a link between modern human and ape ancestry, it leaves too much wiggle room. For example, we can’t meaningfully compare it to recently-found Graecopithecus, a similar early hominid/human-like ape which seems to hail from Europe. So while supporters of the out of Africa theory can point to N. alesi, their counterparts can rally around Graecopithecus — and it’s a stalemate again.

We simply need more fossil evidence to pinpoint humanity’s place of birth beyond a doubt. We may never be able to do it, considering how unlikely it is for bones to successfully fossilize. But considering the team found their skull literally sticking half-out from the ground, I’d say we have a fair bit of luck on our side.

The paper “New infant cranium from the African Miocene sheds light on ape evolution” has been published in the journal Nature.

Tinder-like app for orangutans lets females in zoos chose who they mate with

A Dutch zoo is exploring the merits of Tinder-like software in boosting their orangutans’ sex lives, by allowing them more leeway in choosing a mate.

Gotta look good for that profile picture.
Image credits Tambako The Jaguar / Flickr.

As part of a four-year long experiment dubbed “Tinder for orangutans,” 11-year-old female Samboja of the Apenheul primate park in Apeldoorn, Holland, will be the first of her species to swipe, swipe, match. Thomas Bionda, a behavioural biologist at the zoo, will delight the orangutan with pictures of males on a touchscreen to learn more about the species’ mating choices.

Monkeying around

Well you might not know this was a problem up to now, but we kinda need orangutans to get down to business. Along with chimps, orangutans are our closest living relative — and of course, we cut down their habitat and even hunted them so much they’re now endangered.

Part of the effort to preserve this species comes from zoos, where orangutans are encouraged to mate. Available males and females are shipped around all over the world to do just that, but it doesn’t always go according to plan. That’s why Bionda and the zoo have been trying to figure out how females decide which suitors are worthy, by allowing them to take their pick on a touchscreen tablet and examining the results for patterns. Since flying in males can be a long and costly procedure — they could come from as far away as Singapore — the zoo hopes this research will limit stale encounters.

“Things don’t always go well when a male and a female first meet,” Bionda said.

“Often, animals have to be taken back to the zoo they came from without mating.”

I know your pain, male orangutans.

The team’s main problem was developing a device that wouldn’t break under the Samboja’s rough handling. Their first tablet was reinforced with steel and made it past the two week mark. Then Samboja’s mother Sandy — also known as Demolition Woman — got her hands on the device and destroyed it. The scientists are now waiting for a strong-enough screen, after which they will test if looks alone are enough to guarantee a successful encounter in the species.

“This is completely digital, of course,” he said. “Usually, smell plays an important role too. But with the orangutans, it will be what you see is what you get.”

Bionda however isn’t only interested in hooking up orangutans — his research plays into broader work looking at the role emotions play in animal relationships.

“Emotion is of huge evolutionary importance. If you don’t interpret an emotion correctly in the wild, it can be the end of you.”

Violence might be deeply embedded in our genes, study finds

Hardcore violence is a feature passed on in primate lineage for millions of years, inherited by humans over the course of our evolution.

Violence can emerge even in peaceful bonobo communities. Image credits: San Diego Zoo.

Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wondered whether humans are inherently violent, as did Jean-Jacques Rousseau and countless social scientists after that. Violent behavior directed towards members of the same species is not uncommon for primates, but it is virtually unheard of in other intelligent species such as whales. So where does that leave us?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that almost everything we learn is cultural, it’s modeled by our surrounding environment. But researchers have found it extremely difficult to separate the evolutionary from the sociological traits.

If they want to assess a certain trait of a species, biologists commonly study the history of the species’ biological evolution, reconstructing probably ancestral features. José María Gómez from the Universidad de Granada in Spain assessed the level of lethal violence in 1,024 mammal species from 137 taxonomic families and in about 600 human populations, ranging from about 50,000 years ago to the present.

They compared how many instances of violence were lethal in mammalian species to the same instances in prehistoric humans, using phylogenetic models to make predictions as well as readily available data. Their comparison revealed a similar figure: 2%. In other words, 1 in 50 fatalities was caused by violence.

“Humans emerged from an evolutionary lineage with a long history of higher-than-average levels of lethal violence towards members of the same species,” the study writes. Even so, followers of Rousseau might step in to say that our species’ figure of 2% tells us nothing about our innate tendencies; it might merely reflect a calculated or environmentally induced response to the environments in which early humans lived.”

But this doesn’t mean that we’re meant to be violence, because as Rousseau believed, culture also has a huge impact on us. Even though 1 in 50 prehistoric fatalities might have been violent, today we really don’t see that kind of violence.

“But societies can also modify our innate tendencies. Rates of homicide in modern societies that have police forces, legal systems, prisons and strong cultural attitudes that reject violence are, at less than 1 in 10,000 deaths (or .01%), about 200 times lower than the authors’ predictions for our state of nature. Hobbes has landed a serious blow on Rousseau, but not quite knocked him out.”

Online paper: http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature19758

 

What doesn’t kill you, makes your life shorter: Baboons with rough childhoods die earlier

Studies show that childhood trauma like abuse, neglect, physical accidents and other hallmarks put people at greater risk of dying prematurely once in adulthood. A rough childhood is associated with heart disease, diabetes, and addiction later in life, even though the stressful events have subsided. Generally, what doesn’t kill you makes your life shorter. This is true for baboons as well, according to researchers at Duke University, University of Notre Dame and Princeton University.

A four-month old infant baboon rides on its mother's back near Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Credit: Susan Alberts, Duke University

A four-month old infant baboon rides on its mother’s back near Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Credit: Susan Alberts, Duke University

When wild baboon younglings go through misfortunes early in their lives, such as experiencing a merciless drought or losing their mother, their lifespan is significantly reduced. Compared to more fortunate peers, the traumatized baboons can live up to ten years less.

The researchers produced their findings with the help of a long-term study of 196 wild female baboons which were monitored nearly daily between 1983 and 2013.

The life of a baboon isn’t easy. Risks like famine, overcrowding, predators, droughts and human activity take their toll. But depending on when and where they were born, some baboons had it better early in life.

In total, six sources of adversity in early that reduce lifespan were identified. These include little rainfall or losing a mother. Three-quarters of the baboons had at least one of the six early risk factors, and 15 percent had three or more. The most vulnerable were those young baboons who lost their mothers before age four, or whose next-born sibling arrived before they were fully weaned.

“Females who got a good start in life, who were born of high-ranking mothers when there was a lot of food around, lived a lot longer than females who did not get a good start in life,” says Joan Silk, an evolutionary anthropologist at Arizona State University who was not involved in the study. “Although it is intuitive that this might be the case, no one had ever shown this before. No one had the kind of the data that you need to show this,” she adds.

Some psychologists suggest that childhood trauma leads to poor lifestyle choices later in life like smoking, binge eating, drugs and so on. Exposure to risk, makes you take more risks later in life, or so the explanation goes. Baboons, however, don’t eat junk food to patch emotional scars from childhood. The findings published in Nature Communications suggest that medical care and lifestyle choices are only part of the story.

The most unfortunate baboons were found to be more isolated, for instance. Savanna baboons form large troops, composed of dozens or even hundreds of baboons, governed by a complex hierarchy that fascinates scientists. Lack of social support might thus be an important factor that puts both baboons and humans at risk later in life. The researchers say that 94 percent of baboon DNA is shared with humans, and just maybe these patterns are rooted in primate psychology.

“This suggests that human adult health effects from childhood stresses are not simply products of the modern environment, but have likely been present throughout our evolutionary history,” says George Gilchrist, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research.

No one knows for sure what’s going on, but researchers have some hunches as to what’s driving the mechanism. Stress hormones and changes in the epigenetic markers that control gene expression might be involved.

“Maybe all the early life adversity events are telling you something about the world you have to live in, and you have to adapt to that in certain ways,” Silk says, “and maybe there’s a tradeoff with longevity.”

aye aye madagascar

Meet the aye-aye: the strangest looking primate in the world

aye aye madagascar

Exclusively found in the north-eastern parts of Madagascar, these peculiarly looking primates may both be the strangest and adorable looking things you’ll see all day.

aye-aye-primate

Aye-ayes (Daubentonia madagascariensis) are dark brown or black and are distinguished by a bushy tail that is larger than their body. They also look a lot like gremlins. Distinguishing features include big, penetrating eyes, large sensitive ears and very long and slender fingers. Actually, an aye-aye’s middle finger is particularly longer than the other digits, which the primate makes good use of by tapping trees for wood-boring insect larvae moving under the bark. It employs the same middle finger to fish them out. Yum!

[ALSO SEE] Pica – the practice of eating dirt and soil in Madagascar

aye-aye-primate1

I personally find the aye-ayes incredible animals, but the natives have a different story to tell. Because of their bizarre appearance, ancient legends of Malagasy considered it the symbol of death – its eerie call doesn’t help it much either. In fact, that middle finger the aye-aye is so keen on using all the time is what sealed its fate as a death bringer. Natives believe that if an aye-aye points its middle finger at you, then death will soon befall. So… aye-ayes usually get killed on sight. It’s no wonder the species is listed as critically endangered with fewer than 1000 specimens left in the wild.

 

The brain scan of the monkey skull

An ancient monkey skull hints to how primate brains might have evolved

Duke University researchers made micro CT scans of the skull of ancient monkey and found its brain, though tiny by modern standards, was far more complex than previously thought. The fossils, discovered in Kenya in 1997, belong to a monkey ancestor who lived some 15 million years ago.

The brain scan of the monkey skull

The 3d skull scan of the Victoriapithecus skull. Fred Spoor/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

The researchers were quite struck by what they found. First, they calculated the brain volume of the ancient monkey, called Victoriapithecus. It was  36 cubic centimeters or roughly twice as small as modern monkeys. Despite the fact that its brain is small in relation to the monkey’s body size, it was incredibly complex. In some aspects, it was actually far more complex than those of modern relatives belonging to the Old World monkeys, a group that includes baboons and macaques. For instance, the olfactory bulb – the brain region responsible for analyzing smell – was three times larger than expected.

“In living higher primates you find the opposite: the brain is very big, and the olfactory bulb is very small, presumably because as their vision got better their sense of smell got worse,” said Lauren Gonzales, lead author of the paper published in Nature.

victoriapithecus

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Previously, the community thought that in the primate family, which includes both apes and humans, the brains first got bigger and the began to fold and turn into more complex areas. In monkeys, at least, this evolutionary chain of events seems to be reversed – first the brains became more complex and only then got larger. The same might be true for us primates, eventually.

The Victoriapithecus skull is very old. It’s in fact the oldest Old World monkey fossil we’ve found yet. Without hard fossil evidence, scientists have long gone back and forth over which came first—large brain size or increased brain complexity.

painting woman red

Woman’s face look more attractive when they ovulate, but it’s not the blushing

Women’s faces are more attractive to men when they hit peak ovulation, past research showed. It’s not clear what the amplifying signals are. One suggestion was that women’s cheeks turn slightly red during ovulation, providing a subtle cue that enhance attractiveness. Using cameras specially designed to distinguish between subtle colour variations, researchers at University of Cambridge found that women’s faces show an increased redness. Peculiarly, this difference is so small that it’s not visually perceptible. Is the cue that subtle or can the enhanced attractiveness be attributed to some other factor or signal?

painting woman red

Photo: iStock

Dr Hannah Rowland and Dr Robert Burriss, one a zoologist, the other a psychologist, recruited undergrad female students and photographed them at the same time, each morning, for at least a month. The women’s faces, which didn’t had any makeup on, were photographed with a scientific camera typically used in the wild to discern camouflage. Then a computer program selected an identical cheek patch for each photograph.

Then researchers knew when each woman would ovulate since they screen for when the luteinising hormone surged in blood. This way, the researchers knew which photograph showed the woman at peak fertility. The team converted the imagery into red/green/blue (RGB) values to measure colour levels and changes. Indeed, the Cambridge researchers found redness varied across the ovulatory cycle, peaking at ovulation and remaining high during the later stages of the cycle after oestrogen levels have fallen. Once menstruation hit, the redness dipped.

However, when the photos showing the fertile women were ran through models of human visual perception, the average difference in redness was 0.6 units. A change of 2.2 units is needed to be detectable to the naked human eye.

“Women don’t advertise ovulation, but they do seem to leak information about it, as studies have shown they are seen as more attractive by men when ovulating,” said Dr Hannah Rowland, from the University of Cambridge’s Zoology Department, who led the study with Dr Robert Burriss, a psychologist from Northumbria University.    “We had thought facial skin colour might be an outward signal for ovulation, as it is in other primates, but this study shows facial redness is not what men are picking up on – although it could be a small piece of a much larger puzzle,” she said.

It’s interesting that this happens in the first place, even though it doesn’t explain the previously reported enhanced attractiveness. Some primate species advertise ovulation, while the males only express sexual interest in females when they appear to be fertile.  In humans, ovulation is less conspicuous and sexual behaviour is not restricted to the period of peak fertility. Seeing how women have this ‘ability’ can only mean that at some point cheek redness was visible, but this got tune down evolutionary over time. It may very well some antique adaptation from a common primate ancestor.

Primates, us humans included, really like red. Some women might augment face redness during ovulation by wearing red clothing or a blusher.

“As far back as the 1970s, scientists were speculating that involuntary signals of fertility such as skin colour changes might be replaced with voluntary signals, such as clothing and behaviour,” said Burriss. “Some species of primate advertise their fertility through changes in the colour of their faces. Even if humans once advertised ovulation in this way, it appears that we don’t anymore.”

Alright then, if facial redness doesn’t answer the question, what does? Well, there are other signals that might explain the enhanced attractiveness at ovulation. In may be that women have a greater propensity for blushing when around men they find attractive.

“Other research has shown that when women are in the fertile phase of their cycle they are more flirtatious and their pupils dilate more readily, but only when they are thinking about or interacting with attractive men,” said Burriss. “We will need to do more research to find out if skin redness changes in the same way”.

The research was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

chimp-knowledge

The cost of culture and learning is disease, but it’s been worth it

Transferring knowledge from one individual to the other forms the basis of all human cultures, whether we’re talking about learning how to chop wood, how the Earth actually revolves in a counter-intuitive manner around the sun and no the other way around, or how the Earth is a planet in the first place and everything it entails. Each human consciousness starts as a clean state and it’s up to our families, society and its legacy to guide us through and teach us. History, science, philosophy or even the study of religion (often overlooked for all the bad reasons in modern society) – where would we be without them? Well, for one a bit healthier if we’re to lean credence to a Harvard study which found a direct link between learning and an increased risk of contacting diseases.

A curiosity-killed-the-cat scenario

chimp-knowledge

Image: Royal Society

The whole idea is that learning from others brings us closer, literally. We need to be close to another person to learn from his behavior or listen to what he has to say, so there’s this sort of intuitive idea that learning drives socially transmitted diseases, like the flu. Likewise, learning through exploration exposes you to previously unknown pathogens and parasites from the environment. Of course, today in the age of the internet no one is bound by these rules. You could very well live in your basement all your life and study all the wealth of human knowledge without being at risk of contacting a disease from some other human. But that’s besides the point, so bear with me.

[ALSO READ] Chimps Pass down Skills to Peers and Establish Cultures

Collin McCabe, a doctoral student in Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology,  and colleagues  examined data on social learning and exploratory behavior across 127 primate species and compared these with the diversity of pathogens and parasites within the same species.

“What we were trying to understand was what the causal relationship, if any, might be between how an animal learns and its disease burden,” McCabe said. “The question was whether animals that have more diseases are forced to come up with new solutions for coping with these infections. That idea, what we call the compensation hypothesis, takes the disease as a given and argues that behavior develops in response to diseases.

“The alternative — what we called the exposure hypothesis — suggests that animals that are more exploratory and learn more from others expose themselves to more diseases through more-frequent contact with other individuals or the environment,” McCabe continued. “That is, disease is a consequence, not a cause of behavioral flexibility.”

The results speak for themselves: more social learning was associated with an increased risk of socially transmitted disease, and more exploratory learning was associated with an increased risk of environmentally transmitted disease, no other correlations were found. Of course, because human culture is so diverse and complex it’s nearly impossible to make an accurate judgement on how disease carrying was influenced by it. The researchers believe, however, that there’s no reason why the result shouldn’t also apply to humans. The paper was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

[BEAUTIFUL DATA] How culture migrated and expanded from city to city in the past 2,000 years

“The same processes — innovation and social learning — that lead to non-human primate cultural transmission are the very building blocks of human culture.

“On one hand, I think this might be a good explanation for why we don’t see every animal inhabiting the same brainy niche that humans do,” McCabe said. “Because there are significant costs that go along with learning, and each species is equipped with varying behaviors and other coping mechanisms, it doesn’t really make sense for every animal to become a great learner.

“There’s also a good amount of irony in the fact that the same set of behaviors that allowed us to domesticate livestock and build the pyramids is also what exposed us to the sort of diseases that occur when people live in close contact and start to try new things, so this provides an interesting perspective on human evolution.”

I found the findings really interesting for a number of different reasons. Humans are social creatures – keep a person alone for a year and you’ll turn him into a lunatic. Obviously, at some point there was a tradeoff: human ancestors, guided by an unseen mechanism, realized there’s a net benefit to sticking together and sharing knowledge, food or wealth, despite the risk of transmitting diseases. The opportunity of transmitting an idea, is well worth the risk. Then again, look at us now. If humans didn’t know to cooperate and form cultures, we’d never have a cure for the thousands variants of diseases that affect or used to affect people since the dawn of mankind. Somewhere, sometime a line was drawn and we all chanted in rapture: it was all worth it!

alcohol consumption

Our early ancestors first metabolized alcohol 10 million years ago, a find that helps shape primate evolution

Have you ever wondered why you crave for a drink from time to time or why you can drink alcohol in the first place, for that matter? Our ability to ingest and metabolize ethanol can be traced back to a common primate ancestor who lived some 10 million years ago, according to US researchers who sequenced key proteins from 19 modern primates and monkeys, then used this information for a track back an evolutionary history. The findings help explain why alcohol consumption exists in the first place, and – maybe more importantly – it shines new light on how primate evolution was shaped by it. Darn right, alcohol is important!

Cheers!

alcohol consumption

Image: Addiction Search

Humans, like all primates, use the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme ADH4 to metabolize alcohol. Yet, not all can metabolize alcohol just as well. Lemurs and baboons, for instance, have a less effective version of ADH4, which raises the question: when did humans actually evolve this highly active version of the enzyme? Some researchers believe it all started some 9,000 years ago when humans first began fermenting food, according to archaeological evidence. This estimate (more like a guess) is way off, however.

[MORE] Men drink more alcohol because of contagious smiles

Matthew Carrigan, a biologist at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, along with colleagues, sequenced ADH4 proteins from 19 modern primates then went backwards to determine the exact sequence of the protein in various stages of primate evolution. The team made copies of these ancient proteins and found the earliest version of ADH4 dated as far back as 50 million years ago. During this time, however, ADH4 was only able to metabolize minute amounts of alcohol. Some 10 million years later, though, ADH4 could metabolize 40 times more ethanol. So, what happened in the meantime?

“Around this same time, the Earth cooled off, food sources changed, and this primate ancestor started to explore life on the ground,” Carrigan says.

Our ability to ingest alcohol safely originated 10 million years ago in common ancestor of humans and chimps. Image: Daily Mail

Our ability to ingest alcohol safely originated 10 million years ago in common ancestor of humans and chimps. 

Our early ancestors lived mostly in the trees. Once they began to live on the ground as well, they naturally ingested food fallen from the trees as well. Unlike the fruits hung up in trees, the fallen kind is exposed to bacterial degradation, which converts sugars into alcohol.

“If you were the ancestor without this new mutation in ADH4, the ethanol would quickly build up in your blood and you’d get inebriated much faster,” Carrigan says. “You’d be a cheap date.”

Only a couple of fallen fruits would be enough to get a primate ancestors ‘drunk as a monkey’. Instead of being metabolized, most of the alcohol from the fermented fruits would wind up directly in the blood stream, intoxicating the animal and making it an easy prey. Those primates that bore mutations that allowed them to metabolize more alcohol could eat more fruits without exposing themselves to any additional danger. Because they had more resources at their disposal, these primates were more likely to survive hence they the genes were selected and passed down to the human lineage we know today.

[DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME] What happens to your brain when you mix pot and alcohol

This hypothesis also serves to explain why there’s a pleasure pathway in the brain associated with alcohol consumption. Like most things that happen to our bodies or our feelings and sensations, there’s a reason (often evolutionary) why these exist.

“It’s not a whole lot different from the addictions some people have towards food,” Carrigan explains. “At the right dose, when you didn’t have alcohol and candy at every corner, it was hard to get too much of this sort of stuff, so when you found it, you wanted to be programmed to overconsume.”

Overall, this was a fine study (PLOS ONE). Here’s to you! *glass on glass

Tiny primate fossil holds clues to human divergence from apes

At 55 million years old, it represents the earliest known member of this broad group of animals that includes humans. It may be no bigger than a mouse, but it is a primate, and a very valuable one at that; paleontologists have named it Archicebus, which roughly translates as “ancient monkey”.

archicebus depiction

Artistic depiction.

The team which described this fossil puts it at the very base of the evolution tree of tarsiers – small primates which are now found exclusively in south-east Asia. But the emergence of Archicebus doesn’t only speak about its Asian followers – but about humans as well.

“We are all very curious about the ancestors of primates, including those of human beings,” said Dr Xijun Ni from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China. “From this almost complete skeleton, we can conclude that our ancestors were a kind of very small animal. It was very active and agile; and it lived in the trees and fed on insects,” he told BBC News.

The fossil was preserved on two slate slabs. Almost all of its bones are still observable, as well as some very nice impressions of its feet. Researchers used a European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) – basically a fancy X-Ray machine.

“There’s no way you can prepare the fossil any better to see its features because you would end up with a powder; it’s extremely fragile,” explained the ESRF’s Dr Paul Tafforeau. “But when you scan it with synchrotron light, you can virtually extract the bones without touching them. This gives you access to the general anatomy and we can achieve very high resolution.”

So there you have it, our ancestors were small and agile primates, who emerged at a really key point in geologic history.

“At this time, 55 million years ago, the Earth was a jungle planet,” researchers added. “The whole Earth was covered with tropical jungle – full of trees for little scampery things to climb up and down on. It was an ideal time for primates to be evolving.”

Judging by its teeth and its overall small size, it probably ate insects. It also had big teeth which suggest good hunting vision, though the hunt probably took place during daytime, and less so during the night. But the most remarkable feature is its heel bone.

Far from resembling the shape of a tarsier, the bone looks just like what you’d expect from an arthropod.

archicebus

“The heel, and the foot in general, was one of the most shocking parts of the anatomy of this fossil when we first saw it; because, frankly, the foot of this fossil primate looks like a small monkey, specifically like a marmoset.”, explains Dr Chris Beard from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, US.

This emphasizes Archicebus’ proximity to the lineage split between humans and apes.

“What is means is that the common ancestor of tarsiers and anthropoids had some features that looked more like anthropoids than tarsiers. And I guess we shouldn’t be so surprised by this,” he told BBC News.

The last place to go for a primate on the brink of extinction

The northern white-cheeked crested gibbon is running out of places to live in – literally. Perhaps the only habitat they can still find in the whole world is located deep in the wilderness of Vietnam, according to Conservation International. The organization conducted a census, and found that the biggest population by far is located there, numbering 450 individuals.

The species is already technically extinct in China, and the numbers in Laos and other countries have gone down dramatically in the past years. This is but one of the 25 species of gibbons, all of which are endangered with some drawing extremely close to the brink of extinction. However, things are even worse than they would seem.

A species needs more than just barely survive; they need numbers which can account for genetic variety, otherwise, they will not be able to survive any other treats, be they natural or anthropic.

The white-cheeked gibbons are especially an interesting species. They are monogamous, and have been described as the most romantic primate species, because during the mating period, they sing to each other. They are also mostly vegetarian, and they rarely even touch the ground, jumping around from tree to tree.

Reclusive primate (loris) caught on tape for the first time

t1largloriszsl

The first picture EVER taken of the Horton Plains slender loris

Wildlife researchers from Sri Lanka have reported photographing one of the world’s most reclusive animals, the Horton Plains slender loris, an animal thought to be extinct for more than 60 years (1939 to 2002). Slender loris populations are native to the rainforests of Sri Lanka and southern India have been in decline for decades, but unfortunately, this process sped up in the last years, mostly due to destruction of habitat for agriculture and logging.

This crowned a year and a half study conducted by researchers from the Zoological Society of London’s Edge project – a laudable initiative with the goal of raising awareness about the animals on the brink of extinction. They were helped by scientists from the University of Colombo and the Open University of Sri Lanka.

“This discovery is a great reward for the ongoing field research we undertake across much of south-western Sri Lanka,” said Research leader Saman Gamage

The pictures taken show a 20-centimeter long male adult sitting on a branch, and it also showed some physiological differences that somehwat surprised researchers. For example, he has shorter and sturdier limbs, possibly as an adaptation to the cooler climate or different type of forest it lives in.

“We are thrilled to have captured the first ever photographs and prove its continued existence — especially after its 65 year disappearing act,” said ZSL Conservation biologist Dr. Craig Turner. The discovery improves our knowledge of this species, but we need to focus our efforts on the conservation and restoration of the remaining montane forest where this species still exists. Currently this accounts for less than one percent of the land area of Sri Lanka.”

Update: At the end of 2012, a new slow loris species was discovered remarkably by biologists in Borneo and the Philippines. The new species of slow loris, named Nycticebus kayan, like most elusive nocturnal critters, has gone unnoticed because of its lifestyle. Unfortunately, it too is considered endangered, despite being barely discovered.