The fossils of six new Asian primates, recently unearthed by researchers in southern China, could hold key to studying the evolution of primates. The remains, pertaining to species that lived 34 million years ago, could help researchers establish why primates evolved in Africa, despite originating on the Asian continent.
Due to a favorable climate, during the Eocene, 56-34 million years back, primates thrived not only in Asia, but also in North America, Europe and Africa. According to scientists, so far little was known about the range of primates populating Asia in early Oligocene, the period that followed, when the sharp drop in temperatures caused many species to go extinct. Those remaining could be found around the equator in Asia and Africa.
Out of the six new Asian primates discovered, four pertain to the strepsrrhine lineage and are small-size, lemur-like primates. The remaining two are an ancestor of tarsiers, currently living in southeast Asia and a member of the haplorhine lineage and an anthropoid, respectively, part of the lineage comprising apes, monkeys and homo sapiens. The fossils consisted of jaws, teeth and other types of bones.
During the transition from the Eocene to the Oligocene, primates reacted differently to the sliding temperatures. While in southeastern Asia lemur-like primates proliferated, in Africa anthropoids had a better response to the cooler climate than non-anthropoid primates and subsequently took over Africa.
Although research is still ongoing, the recent discovery of fossils of six new Asian primates is bound to provide a deeper understanding of the evolution of primates. For starters, it illustrates the fact that a major shift in global temperatures affects drastically all organisms that are used to the old temperatures. Among all living organisms, primates are known to be some of the most sensitive to changes in temperature.
The fact that Asian anthropoids were eventually wiped out 34 million years ago, serves as a reminder that severe shifts in climate can affect large groups of animals at a scale that cannot easily be foreseen in an irreversible way.
The study on the fossils of six new Asian primates was published Thursday in the journal Science under the title “Oligocene primates from China reveal divergence between African and Asian primate evolution”.
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