Scientists reported in the journal Science on Friday that a fossil of a primate with “goggle” eyes was likely the last common ancestor of all apes and less like humans that originally thought.
Interesting little ape
The paleobiologist who led the study was David Alba at the Catalan Institute of Paleontology in Barcelona, Spain. He and his team believe that this newly discovered ape had “google” eyes and walked atop tree branches while snacking on fruit at a weight of 8.8 to 11 pounds similar to a gibbon.
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“The last common ancestor of apes and humans might have been, in several respects, more gibbonlike than previously thought,” said Alba.s
As humans we share the distinction of being primates along with apes and Monkeys. The key difference being that monkeys are the only ones of the three to tails. Obviously, our walking, talking, writing, and other elements of the human distinction are also quite notable.
Apes are also classified further with gibbons considered lesser apes while orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees are considered great apes and the closest relatives to humans.
While all the apes and humans are hominoids, only the great apes and humans are referred to together as hominids. Somewhere in the middle of the Miocene epoch (about 17 million years ago) the lesser ages diverged from the hominid group.
Prior to the discovery in Spain of the fossil the group studied, most experts believed that the last common ancestor of living hominoids more resembled the great apes but this 11.6 million-year-old fossil has cast some shadows on that theory.
Finding the fossil in Catalonia
The fossilized primate was found in 2011 during the expansion of a Barcelona provincial landfill.
“The excavation of thousands of tons of Miocene sediments by heavy machinery would have inevitably led to the destruction of thousands of fossils if paleontologists had not been controlling the activity of the diggers,” Alba recently told Live Science. “The Can Mata landfill is one of the most interesting areas worldwide with regard to the study of hominoid evolution in the Miocene. We are sure that other extraordinary fossils await to be discovered there.”
The discovery was quickly named Pliobates cataloniae, with Pliobates representing a combination of Pliopithecus and Hylobates. Respectively, the two mean “more ape” and “the one who walks or haunts.” “Cataloniae” is simply a reference to where the fossil was found.
To call the find, as I have, a fossil is a bit of a misnomer as it was a partial skeleton comprised of about 70 bones and bone fragments including the bulk of the skull and teeth along with a significant amount of the left arm including the wrist and elbow joints.
“Partial skeletons are quite rare in the primate fossil record,” Alba said.
Additional understandings gleaned from the (Lesser) Ape
The partial skeleton was given the moniker “Laia,” a shortened version of Eulalia,” the patron saint of Barcelona. Coincidentally, “Eulalia” means “well spoken” which this fossil is as it speaks to potential disproved theories. While the great apes need a ridge of bone in the elbow to stabilize the primates while swinging through the trees, “Laia” was not equipped in such a manner and likely was only capable of slow and steady climbing like a gibbon.
During Pliobates cataloniae life on this planet and in Catalonia specifically, it would have shared the forest with around 80 species of mammals including horses, rhinos, deer and a number of rodents. Not unlike the gibbon, the find suggests that Pliobates cataloniae had “goggle” rims in the eye sockets leading the team to believe that primitive hominoids were closer to the lesser apes than the great apes
“Pliobates enlightens our understanding of how this ancestor would have looked, in particular by suggesting that in several respects, such as skull shape or body size, it would have been more similar to gibbons than previously thought,” Alba said.