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New Primate: Small Ape with Big Implications

ESF Top 10 New Species of 2016

From the Author...

The fossil ape Pliobates cataloniae was described on the basis of a partial skeleton from a single individual discovered in 2011 by a team of paleontologists watching the removal of sediments with digging machines during the construction of a garbage dump in the fossil-rich area of Els Hostalets de Pierola in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

Once in the lab, we soon realized it was something new, but it took us several years to figure out what it was and publish a detailed study. One of the most challenging difficulties was that the skull was crushed into many pieces, but finally we managed to reconstruct it virtually with the aid of computed tomography techniques.

The skeleton of Pliobates belongs to a small-bodied (about 4-5 kg or 8 to 11 pounds), fruit-eating female ape from 11.6 million years ago. With the aid of relatively long arms, it cautiously climbed on the tree canopies and eventually suspended itself below the branches.

We were initially puzzled by the mosaic of features displayed by this skeleton with teeth resembling Miocene apes, the skull resembling extant gibbons and the rest of the skeleton including a mixture of modern ape characteristics with other much more primitive traits. However, a rigorous analysis of more than 300 features indicates that the lineage of Pliobates diverged from the extant ape stock slightly before the divergence of gibbons and great apes (plus humans), thereby suggesting that our last common ancestor was, at least in some regards (skull and body size), more gibbon-like than previously thought.

We nicknamed the skeleton “Laia,” which is a popular Catalan diminutive of the name “Eulàlia,” in honor of the patron saint of the city of Barcelona and also because it means “eloquent, well spoken” (about the early evolution of extant hominoids, that is, the group including gibbons, great apes and humans). However, I must confess that the fact that my fiancée is called Laia influenced our decision about the nickname.  And yes, strange as it might seem, she still wishes to marry me!

— David M. Alba

About the New Primate

Name: Pliobates cataloniae

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Location: Spain

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Primates

Family: Pilobatidae

Size: 4-5 kg, estimated (about 8 to 11 pounds), perhaps comparable in height to smaller living gibbons, about 43 cm (17 inches)

Etymology: The species name refers to the origin of the fossils, Catalonia.

Type locality: Spain, Catalonia, Hostalets de Pierola, Can Mata landfill

Holotype: Institut Catala de Paleontologica Miquel Crusafont, Sabadell, Spain

More information: David M. Alba, Sergio Almécija, Daniel DeMiguel, Josep Fortuny, Miriam Pérez de los Rios, Marta Pina, Joseph M. Robles, and Salvador Moyà-Solà. 2015. A new Miocene small-bodied ape from Eurasia sheds light on hominoid evolution. Science 350, aab2625. DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2625

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