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Discovery by Baylor University researchers sheds new light on the habitat of early apes

February 19, 2014

WACO, Texas (Feb. 18, 2014)-- Baylor University researchers, in collaboration with an international team of scientists, have discovered definitive evidence of the environment inhabited by the early ape Proconsul on Rusinga Island, Kenya. The groundbreaking discovery provides additional information that will help scientists understand and interpret the connection between habitat preferences and the early diversification of the ape-human lineage.

Their research findings--published this month in Nature Communications--demonstrate that Proconsul and its primate relative Dendropithecus inhabited "a widespread, dense, multistoried, closed canopy" forest. The study is available here online.

Daniel Peppe, Ph.D., assistant professor of geology in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences, said that previous work on the fossil sites on Rusinga Island suggested a variety of contradictory environmental preferences for Proconsul and that none of the previous work could definitively tie Proconsul to a specific habitat.

"Our research findings provide direct evidence and confirm where the early ape lived about 18 to 20 million years ago," Peppe said. "We now know that Proconsul lived in a closed-canopy, tropical seasonal forest set in a warm and relatively wet local climate."

Lauren Michel, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the geology department at Baylor, was among the team of international researchers who found fossils of a single individual of Proconsul among geological deposits that also contained tree stump casts, calcified roots and fossil leaves. This discovery "underscores the importance of forested environments in the evolution of early apes," Peppe said.

"While excavating one of the major fossil sites on Rusinga Island, our team found four teeth from Proconsul amid an expansive fossil forest system," Michel said. "Ultimately, we were able to find 29 tree stump casts and unearth root casts in the same horizon as the fossil teeth."

"The varying diameters of the tree stumps coupled with their density within the fossil soil, implies that the forest would have been comprised of trees with interlocking or overlapping branches, thus creating a canopy," Michel said.

Also, further evidence from the excavation site has shown that the landscape was "stable for decades to a few hundred years while the forest grew," Michel added.

Adding to the novelty of the research teams' findings is how all of forest artifacts were contained in one layer or strata.

"What is spectacular about this discovery is that all of these individual elements--tree stumps, leaves, roots, animals--are tied together in a single stratigraphic interval. This gives us tremendous resolution in reconstructing the specific environment inhabited by one of our early ape ancestors," said Kieran P. McNulty, Ph.D., co-director of research on Rusinga Island and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

Researchers were also able to determine the climate for the fossil forest.

"Evidence from the forest fossil soil suggests that the precipitation was seasonal with a distinct wet and dry period. During the dry season, there was probably relatively little rainfall," Peppe said. "Additionally, by studying fossil leaves at the site, we were able to estimate that there was about 55 to 100 inches of rainfall a year and the average annual temperature was between 73 and 94 degrees Fahrenheit."

Research on Rusinga Island has been ongoing for more than 80 years and has resulted in the collection of thousands of mammal fossils, including many well-preserved specimens of Proconsul and other primates.

Evidence from these fossils of Proconsul indicate that it probably had a body position somewhat "similar to modern monkeys," but that details of its anatomy suggest some "more ape-like climbing and clambering" abilities. Since 2011, the team's research at the fossil forest site has resulted in the collection of several additional new primate fossils.

"This understanding of Proconsul's skeletal anatomy and how it moved demonstrates that the species was well-suited for life in a dense, closed canopy forest, which is consistent with our findings," Michel said.
-end-
Other contributing authors to the study include: Steven G. Driese of Baylor University; William H. Horner of Baylor University and Colorado State University; James A. Lutz of Utah State University; Holly M. Dunsworth of University of Rhode Island; William E. H. Harcourt-Smith of Lehman College, City University of New York, and the Natural History Museum; Thomas Lehmann of Senckenberg Research Institute ; Sheila Nightingale of City University of New York and Kieran P. McNulty of University of Minnesota.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

ABOUT BAYLOR COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES

The College of Arts and Sciences is Baylor University's oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 26 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit http://www.baylor.edu/artsandsciences.

Baylor University

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