52-Million-Year-Old Ankle Fossil Suggests Our Ancestors Were High Flying Acrobats

Biologists have long believed the common ancestor of all primates was a small, deliberate animal which used its grasping hands and feet to scamper along thin branches foraging for fruits and insects. They theorized that the leaping skills came later, after the proto-primate evolved into two distinct groups — wet-nosed primates like lemurs and dry-nosed primates that include monkeys, apes, and humans. However, the discovery of a perfectly preserved 52-million-year-old fossil seems to suggest that the first primate might have been leading an impressively acrobatic lifestyle, leaping from one tree to another.

Paleontologists discovered the quarter-inch-long ankle bone on an expedition near Marseilles, in south-eastern France, more than 30 years ago. However, it is only recently that a team led by Duke University assistant professor Doug Boyer, decided to study it in detail.

As it turns out, the fossil belonged to one of the oldest known wet-nosed primates — a chipmunk-sized creature called Donrussellia provincialis. Since the mammal has previously only been identified by its jaws and teeth, the team decided to conduct an extensive analysis, by comparing 3-D scans of the tiny bone with those of other animal species.

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