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11 August 2017, 02:36 | Justin Tyler
39;Alesi' the baby ape the earliest complete skull from the line which led to humans
Prior to this find, Nyanzapithecus were known only by bits of tooth, and it wasn't even clear that they were in fact apes.
"The living apes are found all across Africa and Asia-chimps and gorillas in Africa, orangutans and gibbons in Asia-and there are many fossil apes found on both continents, and Europe as well", Christopher Gilbert, paleoanthropologist at Hunter College in NY and co-author of the paper, tells Choi.
"If you're a fossil finder, you know that look", he said. It has been dated to 13 million years old, a crucial period in human evolutionary history. Researchers have found bits of jaw, facial bones and foreheads, but a complete cranium is an nearly miraculous find.
Many fossils depict the evolution that has unfolded since the narrower lineage that led to people split from chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary cousins, 6 to 7 million years ago.
That has now changed with the remarkable discovery of a 13-million-year-old infant ape skull in the Napudet deposits of northern Kenya. It is the most complete extinct ape skull known in the fossil record.
The new specimen has been labelled Nyanzapithecus alesi, with its species name taken from the Turkana word for ancestor - 'ales.' It was just 16 months old when it died.
Brenda Benefit, an anthropologist at New Mexico State University, who was not involved in the study, tells Dvorsky that N. alesi combines some traits of the great apes with more primitive gibbon-like traits. "However, our analyses show that this appearance is not exclusively found in gibbons, and it evolved multiple times among extinct apes, monkeys, and their relatives".
"There was some discussion for a while about whether the modern apes actually originated in Africa or in Eurasia, because gibbons today live in Southeast Asia, and this pretty squarely confirms that the origin of apes was in Africa".
Numerous most informative parts of the skull are preserved inside the fossil.
Much of the information the lemon-sized skull has provided scientists is the result of highly sensitive 3D X-ray imaging performed by the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.
"We were able to reveal the brain cavity, the inner ears and the unerupted adult teeth with their daily record of growth lines", Paul Tafforeau, an ESRF scientist, said in a statement. The researchers established this age by counting the layers within the fossilized dental structures, a process akin to counting tree rings. If the animal was fully grown it would have weighed in at 25 pounds and looked like a gibbon. However, certain features distinguish it from modern gibbons, suggesting it was a very different type of animal. But unlike gibbons, it had a markedly smaller semicircular canal in its ear, which primates use for orientation and the perception of motion (particularly when they're flinging themselves from branch to branch). At this critical stage in evolutionary history, apes were already moving away from a purely arboreal existence.
"Humans and modern apes are very closely related".
The Rutgers Geology Museum in New Brunswick plans to display a cast of the infant ape skull at its 50th annual open house on January 27, 2018. But the inner ear helps researchers know that fossil comes from a period after monkeys and early apes diverged. Ellen Miller, an anthropology professor at Wake Forest University, contributed to the study.
"Nyanzapithecus alesi was part of a group of primates that existed in Africa for over 10 million years", says lead author Isaiah Nengo. He tells Dvorsky that he believes other ape specimens, including Proconsul and Ekembo are also good candidates for being the last common ancestor. They first appear in the fossil record during the end of the Oligocene geological epoch in Africa (from about 33.9 million to 23 million years ago) and persisted until perhaps the late Miocene.
Researchers have discovered a 13 million-year-old skull of a new species of ape, the most complete known fossil of its kind.
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