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Great Ape Evolution Redefined By New Fossil Species, Researchers Say

Oct 31, 2015 04:15 PM EDT
Previously, scientists believed great apes and humans diverged from small-bodied gibbons about 17 million years ago.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons )

A recent fossil find may redefine how scientists view the evolutionary divergence between monkeys and apes. Researchers from George Washington University (GW) and the Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont (ICP) have identified a new species of small apes, known as Pliobates cataloniae, that existed before humans and great apes began evolving differently than gibbons or the "lesser ape."

Currently, scientists believe great apes and humans diverged from small-bodied apes about 17 million years ago. This newly found younger fossil – roughly 11.6 million years old – suggests otherwise, according to a news release.

"This fossil discovery is providing a missing chapter to the beginning of ape and human history," Sergio Almécija, assistant professor of anthropology at GW, said in a news release. "We used to think small apes evolved from larger-bodied apes, but this new species tells us small and large apes may have co-existed since hominoids (humans and great apes) originated. Alternatively, Pliobates might indicate that great apes evolved from gibbon-size ape ancestors."

Pliobates cataloniae
(Photo : Marta Palmero / Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont)
A new fossil ape species sheds light on the evolution of great apes from gibbons.

This new fossil species represents the last common ancestor between humans and great apes. The partial Pliobates cataloniae skeleton was originally found in 2011 when a landfill was being built in Barcelona, Spain. In total, researchers excavated 70 fossil remains. After analyzing the remains further, researchers concluded they belonged to an adult female that weighed between nine and 11 pounds. Similar to apes today, they believe the fossil species consumed soft fruits and moved through the forest canopy by swinging from tree to tree.

"These remains clearly belong to an ape, but they are so small," Dr. Almécija added. "Then we realized, maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. Maybe some early ape ancestors were smaller than we thought."

Essentially, these fossils shed light on how smaller gibbon-sized apes evolved into the great apes we know today. Their findings were recently published in Science magazine.  A video detailing their study can be found online.

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