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An ankle bone from 52 million years ago suggests that the earliest primates, the ancestors of humans, were great at leaping from tree to tree. Credit: Douglas Boyer, Duke University

Why Your Ancestors Would Have Aced the Long Jump

This tiny ankle bone belonged to one of the earliest members of the primate family tree. The 52-million-year-old fossil suggests that the first primates were expert leapers. Discovered more than 30 years ago by paleontologist Marc Godinot, the fossil is now housed at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

First Primates were built for leaping, fossil ankle suggests

These first primates spent most of their time in the trees rather than on the ground, but just how nimble they were as they moved around in the treetops has been a topic of dispute.

For years, scientists thought the ancestors of today's humans, monkeys, lemurs and apes were relatively slow and deliberate animals, using their grasping hands and feet to creep along small twigs and branches to stalk insects or find flowers and fruits.

Early primates possessed adaptations for ‘arboreal locomotion’ that enabled maneuvering along fine branches, as seen in this slender loris.

Early primates possessed adaptations for ‘arboreal locomotion’ that enabled maneuvering along fine branches, as seen in this slender loris. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

But a fossil study published in the October 2017 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution suggests the first primates were masters at leaping through the trees.

Paleontologists working in a quarry in southeastern France uncovered the quarter-inch-long bone, the lower part of the ankle joint.

The fossil matched up best with a chipmunk-sized creature called Donrussellia provincialis .

Artists impression of a close relative (donrussellia lusitanica) of the owner of the ankle bone

Artists impression of a close relative ( donrussellia lusitanica) of the owner of the ankle bone (Source: guiadecampo)

Previously only known from jaws and teeth, Donrussellia is thought be one of the earliest members of the primate family tree, on the branch leading to lemurs, lorises and bush babies.

Duke University assistant professor Doug Boyer and colleagues studied scans of Donrussellia's ankle and compared it to other animals, using computer algorithms to analyze the 3-D digital shape of each tiny bone.

They were surprised to find that Donrussellia's ankle was not like those of other primates, but was more similar to those of treeshrews and other nonprimate species.

Nicobar Treeshrew (Tupaia nicobarica nicobarica) photographed near Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar, India

Nicobar Treeshrew (Tupaia nicobarica nicobarica) photographed near Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar, India ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The team's analyses also suggest the animal didn't just clamber or scurry along small branches. Instead, it may have been able to bound between trunks and branches, using its grasping feet to stick the landing.

The researchers say that - contrary to what many scientists thought - the first primates may have evolved their acrobatic leaping skills first, while anatomical changes that allowed them to cling to slender branch tips and creep from tree to tree came later.

"Being able to jump from one tree to another might have been important, especially if there were ground predators around waiting to snag them," Boyer said.

Top image: An ankle bone from 52 million years ago suggests that the earliest primates, the ancestors of humans, were great at leaping from tree to tree. Credit: Douglas Boyer, Duke University

The article ‘Why your ancestors would have aced the high jump: First primates were built for leaping, fossil ankle suggests’ was originally published on Science Daily.

Source: Duke University. "Why your ancestors would have aced the long jump: First primates were built for leaping, fossil ankle suggests." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 September 2017. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170911150924.htm

References

Doug M. Boyer, Séverine Toussaint, Marc Godinot. Postcrania of the most primitive euprimate and implications for primate origins . Journal of Human Evolution , 2017; 111: 202 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2017.07.005

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