Science

Rewriting Human Evolution History: Apes Lived in Open Habitats 10 Million Years Earlier Than Predicted

Using rigorous and detailed collection methods, researchers were able to place the remains of fossil apes, such as Morotopithecus, into detailed habitat reconstructions. The research has led to a new framework for future studies regarding the evolutionary origins of great apes. The findings suggest that modern monkey anatomy may have evolved in open forests among leaf-eating monkeys rather than forest-dwelling fruit-eating monkeys. Credits: Corbin Rainbolt

Researchers are changing the narrative of human evolution through paleontological and geological fieldwork.

According to new research from the University of Minnesota, the story of human evolution is not as simple as once thought. Two studies have shown that early apes lived in a wide variety of habitats, including open habitats like scrub and wooded grasslands, which existed 10 million years earlier than previously known. The research has led to a new framework for future studies regarding the evolutionary origins of great apes. The findings suggest that modern monkey anatomy may have evolved in open forests among leaf-eating monkeys rather than forest-dwelling fruit-eating monkeys.

The story of human evolution has long been the story of a forested Africa that gradually became drier, giving rise to open grasslands and forcing our forest-loving ape ancestors to abandon the trees and become bipedal. Even though ecological and fossil evidence suggested that this account was overly simplistic, the theory remains prominent in many evolutionary scenarios.

Two new studies recently published in the journal Science conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota put this idea to rest. The finds describe paleoecological reconstructions of the earliest fossil sites of great apes in East Africa dated to the early Miocene – between 23 and 16 million years ago – showing that early apes lived in a wide variety of habitats , including open habitats like scrub and wooded grassland that existed 10 million years earlier than previously known.

Search results include:

  • Some of these habitats included important C4 plant biomass, grasses that characterize tropical savannas today, but which were thought to have become dominant only 10 million years ago.
  • Modern monkey anatomy may have evolved in open forests among leaf-eating monkeys rather than forest-dwelling fruit-eating monkeys.
  • The combination of open habitats with a high C4 Early Miocene biomass suggests that traditional scenarios regarding the evolution of animal and plant communities in Africa, including the origin of hominids, need to be reconsidered.

Researchers from nine fossil site complexes – which included 30 experts from African, North American and European institutions – conducted paleontological and geological fieldwork, collecting thousands of plant and animal fossil remains and sampling deposits fossils for multiple sources of evidence to reconstruct ancient habitats.

“None of us could have reached these conclusions working in isolation at our individual fossil sites,” said Kieran McNulty, professor of anthropology at the College of Liberal Arts, lead author and organizer of the decade-long research. on the catarrhines and hominoids of East Africa. Evolution Project (REACHE). “Working in the fossil record is a challenge. We discover clues to past life and need to piece them together and interpret them across space and time. It’s like a 4D puzzle, where each team member can only see certain pieces.

McNulty Ochieng Siembo Kisingiri Volcano

Professor Kieran McNulty (left) alongside researchers Cliff Ochieng (middle) and Joshua Siembo (right) at Kisingiri Volcano in Kenya. Credit: Madelaine Walker

“You go into a project like this not knowing for sure what you’re going to find, which is exciting. In this case, we realized we were looking at a picture of Early Miocene communities in East Africa that is quite different from what we expected,” said David Fox, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and of the Environment from the College of Science and Engineering. . “There wasn’t a single ‘ah ha moment’ but over years of seasons in the field and the constant accumulation of new fossils and data, we realized that the environments of early apes varied greatly. compared to the traditional image of forest habitats.”

“The findings have transformed what we thought we knew about the first apes and the origin of where, when and why they navigated through trees and on the ground in different ways,” said Robin Bernstein , director of the biological anthropology program at the National Science Foundation. “For the first time, by combining diverse data sources, this collaborative research team has linked specific aspects of primitive great ape anatomy to nuanced environmental changes in their habitat in East Africa, now revealed as more open and less forested than previously thought.The effort outlines a new framework for future studies regarding the evolutionary origins of apes.

Muteti Surveying Kapurtay Excavation

Minnesota PhD student Samuel Muteti inspects the Kapurtay excavation site in Kenya. 1 credit

Further research at these fossil sites will improve our understanding of these habitats, especially finer changes in space and time. Similarly, similar collaborations focused on earlier and later periods are needed to fully understand fossil interactions.

species
A species is a group of living organisms that share a set of common characteristics and are capable of reproducing and producing fertile offspring. The concept of species is important in biology because it is used to classify and organize the diversity of life. There are different ways to define a species, but the most widely accepted is the concept of biological species, which defines a species as a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable offspring in the wild. This definition is widely used in evolutionary biology and ecology to identify and classify living organisms.

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“This level of cooperation among different teams is unique in paleoanthropology,” said McNulty. “These two studies highlight the importance of extending collaboration and dialog beyond our immediate research partners.”

References:

“Oldest evidence of abundant C4 grasses and habitat heterogeneity in eastern Africa” by Daniel J. Peppe, Susanne M. Cote, Alan L. Deino, David L. Fox, John D. Kingston, Rahab N. Kinyanjui, William E. Lukens, Laura M. MacLatchy, Alice Novello, Caroline A. E. Strömberg, Steven G. Driese, Nicole D. Garrett, Kayla R. Hillis, Bonnie F. Jacobs, Kirsten E. H. Jenkins, Robert M. Kityo, Thomas Lehmann, Fredrick K. Manthi, Emma N. Mbua, Lauren A. Michel, Ellen R. Miller, Amon A. T. Mugume, Samuel N. Muteti, Isaiah O. Nengo, Kennedy O. Oginga, Samuel R. Phelps, Pratigya Polissar, James B. Rossie, Nancy J. Stevens, Kevin T. Uno and Kieran P. McNulty, 13 April 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.abq2834

“The evolution of hominoid locomotor versatility: Evidence from Moroto, a 21 Ma site in Uganda” by Laura M. MacLatchy, Susanne M. Cote, Alan L. Deino, Robert M. Kityo, Amon A. T. Mugume, James B. Rossie, William J. Sanders, Miranda N. Cosman, Steven G. Driese, David L. Fox, April J. Freeman, Rutger J. W. Jansma, Kirsten E. H. Jenkins, Rahab N. Kinyanjui, William E. Lukens, Kieran P. McNulty, Alice Novello, Daniel J. Peppe, Caroline A. E. Strömberg, Kevin T. Uno, Alisa J. Winkler and John D. Kingston, 14 April 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.abq2835

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Leakey Foundation, McKnight Land-Grant Fellowship, and Leverhulme Trust Fellowship.


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