'Original' great ape discovered  By Paul Rincon 
 BBC News science reporter 

Scientists have unearthed remains of a primate that could have been
ancestral not only to humans but to all great apes, including chimps
and gorillas.  
The partial skeleton of
this 13-million-year-old "missing link" was found by palaeontologists
working at a dig site near Barcelona in Spain. 
Details of the sensational discovery appear in Science magazine. 
The new specimen was probably male, a fruit-eater and was slightly smaller than 
a chimpanzee, researchers say. 
“ It's very impressive because of its completeness  ” 
David Begun, University of Toronto 
Palaeontologists were just getting started at the dig when a bulldozer churned 
up a tooth. 
Further investigation yielded one of the most complete ape skeletons
known from the Miocene Epoch (about 22 to 5.5 million years ago). 
Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Miquel Crusafont Institute of
Palaeontology in Barcelona and colleagues subsequently found parts of
the skull, ribcage, spine, hands and feet, along with other bones. 
They have assigned it to an entirely new genus and species: Pierolapithecus 
catalaunicus  . 
Monkey business  
Great apes are thought - on the basis of genetic and other evidence -
to have separated from another primate group known as the lesser apes
some time between 11 and 16 million years ago (The lesser apes include
gibbons and siamang). 
It is fascinating, therefore, for a specimen like Pierolapithecus  to turn up 
right in this window. 
Scientists think the creature lived after the lesser apes went their
own evolutionary way, but before the great apes began their own
diversification into different forms such as orang-utans, gorillas,
chimps and, of course, humans. 
" Pierolapithecus  probably is, or is very close to, the last common ancestor 
of great apes and humans," said Professor Moyà-Solà. 
The new ape's ribcage, lower spine and wrist display signs of
specialised climbing abilities that link it with modern great apes, say
the researchers. 
The overall orthograde - or upright - body design of this
animal and modern-day great apes is thought to be an adaptation to
vertical climbing and suspending the body from branches. 
The Miocene ape fossil record is patchy; so finding such a complete fossil from 
this time period is unprecedented. 
"It's very impressive because of its completeness," David Begun,
professor of palaeoanthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada,
told the BBC News website. 
"I think the authors are right that it fills a gap
between the first apes to arrive in Europe and the fossil apes that
more closely resemble those living today." 
Planet of the apes  
Other scientists working on fossil apes were delighted by the
discovery. But not all were convinced by the conclusions drawn by the
Spanish researchers. 
Professor Begun considers it unlikely that Pierolapithecus  was ancestral to 
"I haven't seen the original fossils. But there are four or five
important features of the face, in particular, that seem to be closer
to African apes," he explained. 
"To me the possibility exists that it is already on the evolutionary line to 
African apes and humans." 
Professor David Pilbeam, director of the Peadbody Museum in Cambridge, US, was 
even more sceptical about the relationship of Pierolapithecus  to modern great 
apes: "To me it's a very long stretch to link this to
any of the living apes," he told the BBC News website. 
"I think it's unlikely that you would find relatives of the apes that live 
today in equatorial Africa and Asia up in Europe. 
"But it's interesting in that it appears to show some adaptations
towards having a trunk that's upright because it's suspending itself
[from branches]. 
"It also has some features that show quadrupedal
(four-legged) behaviour. Not quadrupedal in the way chimps or gorillas
are, but more in the way that monkeys are - putting their fingers down
flat," he explained. 
During the Miocene, Earth really was the planet of the apes. 
As many as 100 different ape species roamed the Old World, from France to China 
in Eurasia and from Kenya to Namibia in Africa. 
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/11/18 19:01:57 GMT


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