Spanish scientists unearth Darwin's 'missing link'

19th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

19 November 2004, BARCELONA - Scientists in Spain have unearthed remains of a primate that could have been ancestral not only to humans but to all great apes, including chimps and gorillas.

19 November 2004

BARCELONA - Scientists in Spain have unearthed remains of a primate that could have been ancestral not only to humans but to all great apes, including chimps and gorillas.

The partial skeleton of this 13-million-year-old "missing link" was found by palaeontologists working at a dig site near Barcelona, in north-east Spain.

Details of the sensational discovery appear in the British Science magazine.

The new specimen was probably male, a fruit-eater and was slightly smaller than a chimpanzee, researchers say.

Palaeontologists were just getting started at the dig when a bulldozer churned up a tooth.

Further investigation yielded one of the most complete ape skeletons known from the Miocene Epoch (about 22 to 5.5 million years ago).

Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Miquel Crusafont Institute of Palaeontology in Barcelona and colleagues subsequently found parts of the skull, ribcage, spine, hands and feet, along with other bones.

They have assigned it to an entirely new family and species: Pierolapithecus catalaunicus.

Great apes are thought - on the basis of genetic and other evidence - to have separated from another primate group known as the lesser apes some time between 11 and 16 million years ago (The lesser apes include gibbons and siamang).

It is fascinating, therefore, for a specimen like Pierolapithecus to turn up right in this window.

Scientists think the creature lived after the lesser apes went their own evolutionary way, but before the great apes began their own diversification into different forms such as orang-utans, gorillas, chimps and, of course, humans.

"Pierolapithecus probably is, or is very close to, the last common ancestor of great apes and humans," said Professor Moyà-Solà.

The new ape's ribcage, lower spine and wrist display signs of specialised climbing abilities that link it with modern great apes, say the researchers.

The overall orthograde - or upright - body design of this animal and modern-day great apes is thought to be an adaptation to vertical climbing and suspending the body from branches.

The Miocene ape fossil record is patchy; so finding such a complete fossil from this time period is unprecedented.

"It's very impressive because of its completeness," said David Begun, professor of palaeoanthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada.

"I think the authors are right that it fills a gap between the first apes to arrive in Europe and the fossil apes that more closely resemble those living today."

Other scientists working on fossil apes were delighted by the discovery. But not all were convinced by the conclusions drawn by the Spanish researchers.

Professor Begun considers it unlikely that Pierolapithecus was ancestral to orang-utans.

"I haven't seen the original fossils. But there are four or five important features of the face, in particular, that seem to be closer to African apes," he explained.

During the Miocene, Earth really was the planet of the apes.

As many as 100 different ape species roamed the Old World, from France to China in Eurasia and from Kenya to Namibia in Africa.

[Copyright EFE with Expatica]

Subject: Spanish news

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