Fossil teeth from Kenya solve ancient monkey mystery

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THE teeth of a new fossil monkey, unearthed in the badlands of northwest Kenya, help fill a 6-million-year void in Old World monkey evolution, according to a study by U.S. and Kenyan scientists published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The discovery of 22-millionyear-old fossilised monkey teeth — described as belonging to a new species, Alophia metios— fills a void between a previously discovered 19-million-year-old fossil tooth in Uganda and a 25-million-year-old fossil tooth found in Tanzania. The finding also sheds light on how their diet may have changed the course of their evolution.

“For a group as highly successful as the monkeys of Africa and Asia, it would seem that scientists would have already figured out their evolutionary history,” said the study’s corresponding author John Kappelman, anthropology and geology professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “Although the isolated tooth from Tanzania is important for documenting the earliest occurrence of monkeys, the next 6 million years of the group’s existence are one big blank. This new monkey importantly reveals what happened during the group’s later evolution.”

Since the time interval from 19 to 25 million years ago is represented by a small number of African fossil sites, the team targeted the famous fossil-rich region of West Turkana to try to fill in that blank.

“Today, this region is very arid,” said Benson Kyongo, a collections manager at the National Museums of Kenya. “But millions of years ago, it was a forest and woodland landscape crisscrossed by rivers and streams. These ancient monkeys were living the good life.”

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