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8.1: Primate Evolution

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    136418
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    Jonathan M. G. Perry, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

    Stephanie L. Canington, B.A., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

    Learning Objectives
    • Understand the major trends in primate evolution from the origin of primates to the origin of our own species.
    • Learn about primate adaptations and how they characterize major primate groups.
    • Discuss the kinds of evidence that anthropologists use to find out how extinct primates are related to each other and to living primates.
    • Recognize how the changing geography and climate of Earth have influenced where and when primates have thrived or gone extinct.

    The first fifty million years of primate evolution was a series of adaptive radiations leading to the diversification of the earliest lemurs, monkeys, and apes. The primate story begins in the canopy and understory of conifer-dominated forests, with our small, furtive ancestors subsisting at night, beneath the notice of day-active dinosaurs.

    From the archaic plesiadapiforms (archaic primates) to the earliest groups of true primates (euprimates), the origin of our own order is characterized by the struggle for new food sources and microhabitats in the arboreal setting. Climate change forced major extinctions as the northern continents became increasingly dry, cold, and seasonal and as tropical rainforests gave way to deciduous forests, woodlands, and eventually grasslands. Lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers—once diverse groups containing many species—became rare, except for lemurs in Madagascar where there were no anthropoid competitors and perhaps few predators. Meanwhile, anthropoids (monkeys and apes) emerged in the Old World, then dispersed across parts of the northern hemisphere, Africa, and ultimately South America. Meanwhile, the movement of continents, shifting sea levels, and changing patterns of rainfall and vegetation contributed to the developing landscape of primate biogeography, morphology, and behavior. Today’s primates provide modest reminders of the past diversity and remarkable adaptations of their extinct relatives. This chapter explores the major trends in primate evolution from the origin of the Order Primates to the beginnings of our own lineage, providing a window into these stories from our ancient past.

    Review Questions

    • Compare three major hypotheses about primate origins, making reference to each one’s key ecological reason for primate uniqueness.
    • Explain how changes in temperature, rainfall, and vegetation led to major changes in primate biogeography over the Early Tertiary.
    • List some euprimate features that plesiadapiforms have and some that they lack.
    • Contrast adapoids and omomyoids in terms of life habits.
    • Describe one piece of evidence for each of the adapoid, omomyoid, and tarsier origin hypotheses for anthropoids.
    • Discuss the biogeography of the origins of African great apes and orangutans using examples from the Miocene ape fossil record.

    About the Authors

    Jonathan Perry

    alt
    Jonathan Perry

    Jonathan Perry was trained as a paleontologist and primatologist at the University of Alberta, Duke University, and Stony Brook University. His research focuses on the relationship between food, feeding, and craniodental anatomy in primates both living and extinct. This work includes primate feeding behavior, comparative anatomy, biomechanics, and field paleontology. For the past six years, he has taught courses on primate evolution at the undergraduate and graduate level.

    Stephanie Canington

    alt
    Stephanie Canington

    Stephanie Canington is a Ph.D. student. Her current research is on the links between food properties, feeding behavior, and jaw morphology in lemurs that live in varying forms of captivity.

    For Further Exploration

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    Kay, Richard F. 2018. 100 Years of Primate Paleontology. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 165 (4): 652–676.

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    Martin, R. D. 1990. Primate Origins and Evolution, a Phylogenetic Reconstruction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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    Tables

    Table 8.1. Major Families of Fossil Primates Discussed Here

    alt

    Table 8.2. Morphological Comparisons Between Early Euprimates and Extant Primates

    alt

    Figure Attributions

    Figure 8.1 Hypotheses about primate origins a derivative work by Jonathan M. G. Perry and Stephanie L. Canington is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. [Includes Garnett’s Galago by Ltshears, CC BY-SA 3.0; Nycticebus bancanus by Gunay M.E., CC BY-SA 4.0; Anja réserve (Madagascar) – 06 by Wayne77, CC BY-SA 4.0].

    Figure 8.2 Primate family tree by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.3 Eocene Jay Matternes by Jay Matternes creator QS:P170,Q16732146 is in the public domain.

    Figure 8.4 Paleocene Map with Plesiadapiform Localities original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Elyssa Ebding at GeoPlace, California State University, Chico is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. Localities based on p. 211 of Fleagle, John G. 2013. Primate Adaptation and Evolution, Third Edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Figure 8.5 CarpolestesCL by Sisyphos23 is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

    Figure 8.6 Eocene Map with Adapoid and Omomyoid Localities original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Elyssa Ebding at GeoPlace, California State University, Chico is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. Localities based on p. 229 of Fleagle, John G. 2013. Primate Adaptation and Evolution, Third Edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Figure 8.7 Representative crania of adapids (European adapoids) from the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle Victor Brun in Montauban, France original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.8 Darwinius masillae holotype slabs by Jens L. Franzen, Philip D. Gingerich, Jörg Habersetzer1, Jørn H. Hurum, Wighart von Koenigswald, B. Holly Smith. Originally from Franzen et al. 2009. Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5723. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0005723. Used under a CC BY 2.5 License.

    Figure 8.9 Paleogeographic map showing hypothetical migration routes of Teilhardina by Smith et. al. Originally from Smith, Thierry, Kenneth D. Rose, and Philip D. Gingerich. 2006. Rapid Asia–Europe–North America geographic dispersal of earliest Eocene primate Teilhardina during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103 (30): 11,223-11,227. doi:10.1073/pnas.0511296103.

    Figure 8.10 Oligocene Map with Key Early Anthropoid Localities original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Elyssa Ebding at GeoPlace, California State University, Chico is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. Localities based on p. 265 of Fleagle, John G. 2013. Primate Adaptation and Evolution, Third Edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Figure 8.11 Competing Trees for Anthropoid Origins by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.12 Egyptian workers sweeping Quarry I in the Fayum Basin (2004) by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.13 Elwyn Laverne Simons excavating Aegyptopithecus in the Fayum Basin used by permission of the Duke Lemur Center, Division of Fossil Primates.

    Figure 8.14 Female and male cranium of A. zeuxis by Simons, Elwyn L., Erik R. Seiffert, Timothy M. Ryan, and Yousry Attia. Original from Simons, et al. 2007. A remarkable female cranium of the early Oligocene anthropoid Aegyptopithecus zeuxis (Catarrhini, Propliopithecidae). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104 (21): 8,731-8,736. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0703129104.

    Figure 8.15 Cast of the right half of the mandible of Eosimias centennicus, type specimen, from K.D. Rose cast collection, photo by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.16 Casts of representative amphipithecid material from K.D. Rose cast collection, photo by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.17 Representative specimens of Homunculus patagonicus from K.D. Rose cast collection, photo by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.18a Cañadon Palos Field Locality in Argentina by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.18b Swift Current Creek locality, Saskatchewan, Canada by Jonathan M. G. Perry is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    Figure 8.19 Miocene Map with Fossil Ape Localities original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Elyssa Ebding at GeoPlace, California State University, Chico is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License. Localities based on p. 311 of Fleagle, John G. 2013. Primate Adaptation and Evolution, Third Edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Figure 8.20 Range chart for Miocene hominoids of Western Eurasia by Casanovas-Vilar, Isaac, David M. Alba, Miguel Garcés, Josep M. Robles, and Salvador Moyà-Solà. Original from Casanovas-Vilar et al. 2011. Updated chronology for the Miocene hominoid radiation in Western Eurasia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (14): 5,554-5,559.

    Figure 8.21 Victoriapithecus macinnesi skull photo taken at the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris by Ghedoghedo is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

    Figure 8.22 Gigantopithecus blacki mandible 010112 by Wilson44691 is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

    Figure 8.23 Oreopithecus bambolii 1 by Ghedoghedo is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.


    8.1: Primate Evolution is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.