(The world's first known fingernails belonged to a now-extinct primate, but the animal would have resembled the modern mouse lemur, pictured above. Credit: David Haring/Duke Lemur Center)
The world's oldest known fingernails would have been a challenge for today's manicurists: they were incredibly tiny and probably quite dirty.
The prehistoric fingernails, described in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, date to about 55.8 million years ago and belonged to a primate, now extinct, named Teilhardina brandti. This little lemur-like mammal measured just 6 inches long and lived in trees.
Co-author Jonathan Bloch told Discovery News, "While we are not sure about the original function of nails in primates, it seems clear that they evolved within the context of living in the trees, possibly associated with specialized grasping behaviors for moving in small diameter branches and manipulation of small food items (fruit, seeds, etc.)."
Bloch is an associate curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida campus.
The early fingernails didn't look like our nails either, especially when we artistically tinker with them.
(French manicure, Wikimedia Commons image)
"They are not exactly shaped like our nails," Bloch said. "They are flat like ours, but longer and more claw-like than ours. This likely reflects the derivation of nails from an ancestor with claws (something like a tree shrew). It is our hypothesis that we can trace the origin of our own nails back to at least this point."
He and his colleagues made the discovery after studying more than 25 new specimens of T. brandti.