Earliest Dino-Era Primate Discovered

Posted by: Loren Coleman on January 25th, 2007

Primitive Primate Skeleton

Composite (left) and reconstructed (right) skeletons of Dryomomys szalayi, the oldest known ancestor of primates.
(Credit: Bloch, et al./ PNAS)

In the way of new fossil news, comes a press release from Yale, via Science Daily, discussing the origins of primates in Wyoming during the age of the dinosaurs. Well, that’s not exactly what it says, but I am merely trying to prepare you for how the media might characterize this paleontological discovery. What’s more important, perhaps, is the realization that the relationships within primates is being rewritten with every new discovery.

So, for example, the new hominoid fossils that are found and written about in the next decade with revise another chapter of our understanding of the relative place of humans, Bigfoot, and other fossil ancestors. In the meantime, here’s this release, although I do not appreciate the use of the word “primitive” in any media treatment. “Archaic,” perhaps, “primitive, no. After all, everything is relative. These primates probably thought they were rather advanced for their time.

Paleontologists Discover Most Primitive Primate Skeleton

Science Daily
Source: Yale University

Science Daily — The origins and earliest branches of primate evolution are clearer and more ancient by 10 million years than previous studies estimated, according to a study featured on the cover of the Jan. 23 print edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper by researchers at Yale, the University of Winnipeg, Stony Brook University, and led by University of Florida paleontologist Jonathan Bloch reconstructs the base of the primate family tree by comparing skeletal and fossil specimens representing more than 85 modern and extinct species. The team also discovered two 56-million-year-old fossils, including the most primitive primate skeleton ever described.

In the two-part study, an extensive evaluation of skeletal structures provides evidence that plesiadapiforms, a group of archaic mammals once thought to be more closely related to flying lemurs, are the most primitive primates. The team analyzed 173 characteristics of modern primates, tree shrews, flying lemurs with plesiadapiform skeletons to determine their evolutionary relationships. High-resolution CT scanning made fine resolution of inaccessible structures inside the skulls possible.

“This is the first study to bring it all together,” said co-author Eric Sargis, associate professor of anthropology at Yale University and Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. “The extensive dataset, the number and type of characteristics we were able to compare, and the availability of full skeletons, let us test far more than any previous study.”

At least five major features characterize modern primates: relatively large brains, enhanced vision and eyes that face forward, a specialized ability to leap, nails instead of claws on at least the first toes, and specialized grasping hands and feet. Plesiadapiforms have some but not all of these traits. The article argues that these early primates may have acquired the traits over 10 million years in incremental changes to exploit their environment.

While the study did not include a molecular evaluation of the samples, according to Sargis, these results are consistent with molecular studies on related living groups. Compatibility with the independent molecular data increases the researchers’ confidence in their own results.

Bloch discovered the new plesiadapiform species, Ignacius clarkforkensis and Dryomomys szalayi, just outside Yellowstone National Park in the Bighorn Basin with co-author Doug Boyer, a graduate student in anatomical sciences at Stony Brook. Previously, based only on skulls and isolated bones, scientists proposed that Ignacius was not an archaic primate, but instead a gliding mammal related to flying lemurs. However, analysis of a more complete and well-preserved skeleton by Bloch and his team altered this idea.

“These fossil finds from Wyoming show that our earliest primate ancestors were the size of a mouse, ate fruit and lived in the trees,” said study leader Jonathan Bloch, a vertebrate paleontology curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “It is remarkable to think we are still discovering new fossil species in an area studied by paleontologists for over 100 years.”

Researchers previously hypothesized plesiadapiforms as the ancestors of modern primates, but the idea generated strong debate within the primatology community. This study places the origins of Plesiadapiforms in the Paleocene, about 65 (million) to 55 million years ago in the period between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the first appearance of a number of undisputed members of the modern orders of mammals.

“Plesiadapiforms have long been one of the most controversial groups in mammalian phylogeny,” said Michael J. Novacek, curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “First, they are somewhere near primates and us. Second, historically they have offered tantalizing, but very often incomplete, fossil evidence. But the specimens in their study are beautifully and spectacularly preserved.”

“The results of this study suggest that plesiadapiforms are the critical taxa to study in understanding the earliest phases of human evolution. As such, they should be of very broad interest to biologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists,” said co-author Mary Silcox, professor of anthropology at the University of Winnipeg.

“This collaboration is the first to bring together evidence from all regions of the skeleton, and offers a well-supported perspective on the structure of the earliest part of the primate family tree,” Bloch said.

The research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, Field Museum of Natural History, Yale University, Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (Canada), University of Winnipeg, the Paleobiological Fund, and The Wenner–Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Yale University.ScienceDaily

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

6 Responses to “Earliest Dino-Era Primate Discovered”

  1. DWA responds:

    “It is remarkable to think we are still discovering new fossil species in an area studied by paleontologists for over 100 years.”

    Not so remarkable. Look at the sasquatch.

    I had to toss that in.

  2. mystery_man responds:

    Well, it is amazing, but I am not completely surprised that these discoveries are made. Fossils are rare and we have probably not uncovered even close to all of the species that have ever existed on this planet of ours. You also get fossils that were found and then packed away without anyone realizing the significance of it at the time. Someone will pull out an old fossil (no pun intended) and realize that it is a totally new species years after it was unearthed. In another 100 years I’d say we will still be pulling up new finds like this from time to time. This article is fascinating. It is exciting to have this new information on the early emergence of primates.

  3. alanborky responds:

    Loren, in defence of the word ‘primitive’, let me remind you it actually means ‘prime-itive’, i.e., of the first order, from the beginning of things, rather than, as it tends to be taken these days, ‘of poor, or shoddy quality’, though I take your point.

  4. Mnynames responds:

    There are now paleontologists whose “field expeditions” consist entirely of rooting through the basements and cupboards of museums, and whose rate of discovery is probably on par with some of the more active down-and-dirty field researchers.

    There is a lesson here- Heuvelmans himself said that this is exactly how major discoveries in cryptozoology would be most likely to occur- not in a jungle, but a library or museum.

  5. springheeledjack responds:

    I think as time goes on its way, we will discover all kinds of things about our past that we were not necessarily expecting.

  6. joppa responds:

    These little guys probably sat around and told dumb dino jokes, as they dug those burrows and asteroid shelters.

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