Infant ape’s tiny skull could have a big impact on ape evolution

Rare 13-million-year-old fossil represents a new species

infant ape skull

APE CHILD  An infant ape’s nearly complete skull, found in Kenya, dates to about 13 million years ago. Researchers suspect the youngster represents an ape group close to the origin of living apes and humans.

Fred Spoor

A 13-million-year-old infant’s skull, discovered in Africa in 2014, comes from a new species of ape that may not be far removed from the common ancestor of living apes and humans.

The tiny find, about the size of a lemon, is one of the most complete skulls known of any extinct ape that inhabited Africa, Asia or Europe between 25 million and 5 million years ago, researchers report in the Aug. 10 Nature. The fossil provides the most detailed look to date at a member of a line of African primates that are now candidates for central players in the evolution of present-day apes and humans. 

Most fossils from more than 40 known extinct ape species amount to no more than jaw fragments or a few isolated teeth. A local fossil hunter spotted the nearly complete skull in rock layers located near Kenya’s Lake Turkana. Members of a team led by paleoanthropologist Isaiah Nengo estimated the fossil’s age by assessing radioactive forms of the element argon in surrounding rock, which decay at a known rate.

Comparisons with other African ape fossils indicate that the infant’s skull belongs to a new species that the researchers named Nyanzapithecus alesi. Other species in this genus, previously known mainly from jaws and teeth, date to as early as around 25 million years ago.

“This skull comes from an ancient group of apes that existed in Africa for over 10 million years and was close to the evolutionary origin of living apes and humans,” says Nengo, of Stony Brook University in New York and De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif.

He and colleagues looked inside the skull using a powerful type of 3-D X-ray imaging. This technique revealed microscopic enamel layers that had formed daily from birth in developing adult teeth that had yet to erupt. A count of those layers indicates that the ape was 16 months old when it died.

FINGERTIP SKULL A newly discovered skull of a 13-million-year-old ape infant is held by a researcher shortly after its partial removal from sandstone rock in Kenya. I. Nengo, photo by Christopher Kiarie
Based on a presumably rapid growth rate, the scientists calculated that the ancient ape would have weighed about 11.3 kilograms as an adult. Its adult brain volume would have been almost three times larger than that of known African monkeys from the same time, the researchers estimate.

N. alesi’s tiny mouth and nose, along with several other facial characteristics, make it look much like small-bodied apes called gibbons. Faces resembling gibbons evolved independently in several extinct monkeys, apes and their relatives, the researchers say. The same probably held for N. alesi, making it an unlikely direct ancestor of living gibbons, they conclude.

No lower-body bones turned up with the new find. Even so, it’s possible to tell that N. alesi did not behave as present-day gibbons do. In gibbons, a part of the inner ear called the semicircular canals, which coordinates balance, is large relative to body size. That allows the apes to swing acrobatically from one tree branch to another. N. alesi’s small semicircular canals indicate that it moved cautiously in trees, Nengo says.

Several of the infant skull’s features, including those downsized semicircular canals, connect it to a poorly understood, 7-million- to 8-million-year-old ape called Oreopithecus. Fossils of that primate, discovered in Italy, suggest it walked upright with a slow, shuffling gait. If an evolutionary relationship existed with the older N. alesi, the first members of the Oreopithecus genus probably originated in Africa, Nengo proposes.

Without any lower-body bones for N. alesi, it’s too early to rule out the possibility that Nyanzapithecus gave rise to modern gibbons and perhaps Oreopithecus as well, says paleontologist David Alba of the Catalan Institute of Paleontology Miquel Crusafont in Barcelona. Gibbon ancestors are thought to have diverged from precursors of living great apes and humans between 20 million and 15 million years ago, Alba says.

Despite the age and unprecedented completeness of the new ape skull, no reported tooth or skull features clearly place N. alesi close to the origins of living apes and humans, says paleoanthropologist David Begun of the University of Toronto.

Further studies of casts of the inner braincase, which show impressions from surface features of the brain, may help clarify N. alesi’s position in ape evolution, Nengo says. Insights are also expected from back, forearm and finger fossils of two or three ancient apes, possibly also from N. alesi, found near the skull site in 2015. Those specimens also date to around 13 million years ago. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated August 17, 2017, to clarify the description of previous fossil finds related to the Nyanzapithecus genus.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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