Extinct ape gets a facelift, 12 million years later

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Researchers reconstruct the skull of a great ape species from about 12 million years ago, despite its significant damage.

This species, Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, holds substantial importance in comprehending the evolution of great apes and humans. The team has detailed their discoveries in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, initially identified in northeastern Spain in 2004, belonged to a diverse cluster of extinct ape species thriving in Europe between 15 to 7 million years ago. This species is pivotal in unraveling the complex tapestry of hominid evolution (great apes and humans) since it’s represented by a cranium and partial skeleton from the same individual—a rarity in the fossil record.

Kelsey Pugh, the lead author and a research associate in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology, commented, “Skull and dental features hold immense significance in determining the evolutionary connections of fossil species. The association of this material with the rest of the skeleton not only aids in accurately situating the species within the hominid family tree but also offers insights into the animal’s biology, such as its locomotion within its habitat.”

Prior research on Pierolapithecus suggests that an upright body plan preceded adaptations enabling hominids to hang and maneuver among tree branches. Nevertheless, disputes persist regarding the species’ evolutionary position, partly due to cranial damage.

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Ashley Hammond, co-author and associate curator and chair of the Museum’s Division of Anthropology, noted, “A prevalent challenge in ape and human evolution studies is the fragmentary fossil record, with many specimens being incompletely preserved or distorted. This complicates reaching a consensus on the evolutionary relationships of crucial fossil apes pivotal to understanding ape and human evolution.”

In an attempt to clarify these uncertainties, the researchers employed CT scans to virtually reconstruct Pierolapithecus’s cranium, comparing it with other primate species while simulating the evolution of fundamental features in ape facial structure. Their findings indicated that Pierolapithecus shared overall face shape and size similarities with both ancient and current great apes, yet it possessed distinctive facial traits absent in other Middle Miocene apes. These outcomes align with the proposition that this species signifies one of the earliest members of the great ape and human family.

Sergio Almécija, a senior research scientist in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology and co-author, remarked, “A noteworthy result of the evolutionary modeling in the study indicates that the cranium of Pierolapithecus closely resembles the ancestor from which living great apes and humans evolved. In contrast, gibbons and siamangs (the ‘lesser apes’) appear to have undergone secondary changes involving size reduction.”

Additional contributors to the study include Santiago Catalano from the Fundación Miguel Lillo (Argentina); Miriam Pérez de los Ríos from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid; Josep Fortuny from the Catalan Institute of Paleontology Miquel Crusafont (ICP); Brian Shearer from New York University; Alessandra Vecino Gazabón from the American Museum of Natural History; Salvador Moyà-Solà from the ICP and ICREA; and David Alba from the ICP.

Header Image Credit : David Alba (left), Salvador Moyà-Solà (middle), Kelsey Pugh (right)

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