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South American Monkeys... from Africa?

Feb 04, 2015 04:59 PM EST
Pictured: An artist's impression of what South America's oldest monkey may have looked like.
(Photo : Jorge González)

Fossil evidence has shown that South American monkeys actually come from Africa, according to a new study.

The oldest fossil records of New World monkeys - those found in South America and Central America - date back 26 million years. However the newly described fossils, reported in the journal Nature, indicate that monkeys first arrived in South America at least 36 million years ago.

This pushes back monkey colonization of this continent by approximately 10 million years, as well as shows that these primates managed to make the incredible journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa.

More than 65 million years ago, plate tectonics first separated South America from Africa, causing the continent to become geographically isolated. Nevertheless, various animal species such as monkeys and rodents (including the largest rodent that ever lived) found their way to this island landmass, as indicated by their remains in the fossil record.

However, the evolutionary history of monkeys in South America has remained a mystery because the lack of fossil evidence has made proving this hypothesis difficult.

That is, until a team at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) discovered three new extinct monkeys from eastern Peru. One of them was about the size of a squirrel, but with a longer tail, and probably weighed less than 0.5 pounds. The first of these fossils was found back in 2010, but it wasn't until just recently that researchers realized they had evidence of a key chapter in the evolutionary history of these animals.

This study strongly suggests that South American monkeys have an African ancestry.

"Fossils are scarce and limited to only a few exposed banks along rivers during the dry seasons," co-author Dr. Ken Campbell, curator at the NHM, said in a press release. "For much of the year high water levels make paleontological exploration impossible."

Despite these obstacles, researchers finally found fossils of New World monkeys, helping to shed light on their evolutionary history and journey to South America.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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