The primate relatives of cats lived in the Arctic 52 million years ago

The primate relatives of cats lived in the Arctic 52 million years ago

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Analysis of fossils found in Canada’s far north has revealed that two previously unknown species of ancient near-primates lived above the Arctic Circle about 52 million years ago, according to new research.

The now-extinct creatures belonged to a section of the primate family tree that evolved before the ancestor of lemurs split from the common ancestor of monkeys, apes and humans, said study author Dr. Chris Beard, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas and senior curator at the university’s Biodiversity Institute and Museum of Natural History.

The two sister species lived on what is now Ellesmere Island in northern Canada. They are the first known primatomorphans, or primate relatives, to have lived in latitudes north of the Arctic Circle, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

The two species were named Ignacius mckennai and Ignacius dawsonae.

“To get an idea of ​​what Ignacius looked like, imagine a cross between a lemur and a squirrel that was about half the size of a house cat,” Beard said. “Unlike living primates, Ignacius had eyes on the sides of his head (instead of facing forward like ours) and his fingers and toes had claws instead of nails.”

When researchers analyzed the fossil fragments, the bones and teeth of Ignacius appeared different from other primatomorphans that lived in the more southerly reaches of North America.

“What I’ve been doing for the last few years is trying to understand what they were eating, and if they were eating different things than their mid-latitude counterparts,” said the lead study author. Kristen Miller, PhD student at the National University of Ireland. Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.

Arctic primatomorphans have evolved special features in their jaws and teeth to crush harder food, such as nuts and seeds, compared to their preferred diet of ripe fruit. This physical adaptation probably existed because for half the year, the species lived in the darkness of the Arctic winter, when it was much more difficult to find food.

“We think that’s probably the biggest physical challenge the ancient environment has for these animals,” Beard said.

These findings could also be used to understand how animals adapt and evolve during periods of climate change — as in the case of species facing today’s human-driven climate crisis. today.

Researchers believe that the primatomorphans came from an ancestral species that went north from the southernmost regions of North America. Similar fossils have been found throughout Wyoming, Texas, Montana and Colorado, according to Miller.

“No primary relationship has ever been found at such extreme latitudes,” Miller said. “They are usually found around the equator in tropical regions. I was able to perform a phylogenetic analysis, which helped me understand the relationship between the fossils from Ellesmere Island and the species found in mid-latitude North America.”

The common ancestor of the two Ignacius species probably reached Ellesmere Island about 51 million years ago, Beard said. At the time, it was a peninsula jutting into the Arctic Sea from nearby parts of North America.

Ignacius mckennai and Ignacius dawsonae are named in part after two of Beard’s former colleagues and mentors, he explained: the late paleontologists Dr. Mary Dawson of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and Dr. Malcolm McKenna of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who have both worked extensively on Ellesmere Island.

During this ancient era, the Arctic Circle was a warmer and more hospitable place for life. Global warming has made the region much hotter and wetter, with a more humid environment. The warmer temperatures during this period probably encouraged the ancestors of Igancius to move north.

“Winter temperatures may have gotten as low as freezing for short periods of time, but we know that there was hardly any sustained freezing temperatures because crocodiles have been found on Ellesmere Island, and they cannot survive prolonged freezing, ” said Beard. “During the summer, the temperature reached about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Despite the warmer temperatures, the primatomorphans still had to adapt to survive in their unique northern ecosystem. They grew larger than their southern relatives, who were like squirrels; such growth occurs commonly in mammals that live in northern latitudes because it helps them maintain their core body temperature, Beard said.

“(The results) tell us to expect dramatic and dynamic changes in the Arctic ecosystem as it adapts to continued warming,” Beard said. “Some animals that do not currently live in the Arctic will colonize that region, and some will adapt to their new environment in ways that parallel Ignacius. Similarly, we can expect some of the new colonists to diversify in the Arctic, just as Ignacius did.”

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