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A restoration of Pliobates. Art by M. Palmero.

Paleo Profile: Catalonia’s Little Ape

What did the last common ancestor of living apes look like? That’s a difficult question to answer. Today’s apes – gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and ourselves – are varied and specialized primates with relatively sparse fossil records. Depending on which paleoanthropologist you ask, then, the last common ancestor of today’s apes was either small and gibbon-like or more like a great ape, with gibbons hanging from a dwarfed branch of the family tree.

Pliobates might help resolve the debate. Described by David Alba and colleagues, this 11.6 million year old ape was on the evolutionary “stem” leading to the last common ancestor between the gibbons and the great apes. Rather than being a large-bodied primate, though, Pliobates was relatively small and more gibbon-like in form, an adept climber with some ability to swing beneath the branches of the Miocene forest.

Not that Pliobates was one of our direct ancestors. Molecular evidence suggests that the split between gibbons and the rest of the apes occurred between 16 and 17 million years ago, long before this newly-named ape. Instead, Alba and coauthors write, Pliobates is more of a “persistent type” – an archaic remnant of the apes that led up to the major hominoid division. More fossils will help outline how the actual transition occurred, but, for now, Pliobates is an echo of what our forebears might have been like at the dawn of the apes.

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A reconstruction of Pliobates. From Alba et al., 2015. A virtual reconstruction of the Pliobates skull. From Alba et al., 2015.

Fossil Facts

Name: Pliobates cataloniae

Meaning: Pliobates is a reference to the primate’s intermediate place between Pliopithecus and gibbons (Hylobates), while the species name honors where the fossil was found.

Age: About 11.6 million years old.

Where in the world?: Catalonia, southeastern Spain.

What sort of critter?: An Old World monkey – or catarrhine – closely related to the last common ancestor of today’s apes.

Size: About 10 pounds.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: A partial skeleton including elements of the limbs and a skull.

Reference:

Alba, D., Almécija, S., DeMiguel, D., Fortuny, J., Pérez de los Ríos, M., Robles, J., Moyà-Solà, S. 2015. Miocene small-bodied ape from Eurasia sheds light on hominoid evolution. Science. doi: 10.1126/science.aab2625

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