A newly unearthed species of primate from Spain with both great ape and smaller-bodied ape features has just been placed at the very root of the entire ape family tree.
The newfound primate, Pliobates cataloniae, is believed to have come before the evolutionary divergence of great apes (orangutans, gorillas, chimps and humans) and the so-called lesser apes, gibbons and siamangs, which are much smaller. The primate is described in the journal Science.
The remains of the new primate, which include most of its skull and left arm, were unearthed at a site called Abocador de Can Mata in Catalonia, Spain. They date to 11.6 million years ago, and belonged to an ape that weighed about 11 pounds and was similar in size to the smallest living gibbons.
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"Being at the root of apes, including humans as well, means that in terms of kinship, the new genus is more closely related to extant apes and humans than previously known basal apes, such as Proconsul," lead author David Alba of the Institut Catala de Paleontologia Miguel Crusafont (ICP) told Discovery News.
P. catalaloniae, nicknamed "Laia" (a familiar diminutive of "Eulalia," the patron of Barcelona), has a mishmash of features now associated with different types of apes. Its sharp cusped teeth are more primitive, yet its skull and brain-to-body-mass ratio is more similar to that of a great ape.
Taken together, what is known about this small, furry primate suggests that the last common ancestor of lesser and great apes was hardly a King Kong-like beast.
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"Pliobates indicates that small-bodied taxa might have played a much more significant role than previously thought in the evolution of modern hominoids (great apes), and that their last common ancestor might have been, in some respects, such as skull shape and body size, more gibbon-like than previously thought."
The actual last common ancestor, which is theorized to have lived well before Laia roughly 17 million years ago, might have also been fairly easy going, although wary. This is indicated by the way that Laia's wrist would have rotated, as well as the structure of its elbow.
Alba explained that "in spite of a similar body size, Pliobates would not have displayed the acrobatic suspensory behaviors of living gibbons, but rather a slow and cautious climbing more similar to that displayed by extant lorises."
Like today's gibbons, however, Laia probably was a frugivore, meaning that it ate mostly ripe and soft fruits.