Nav: Home

20-million-year-old skull suggests complex brain evolution in monkeys, apes

August 21, 2019

It has long been thought that the brain size of anthropoid primates--a diverse group of modern and extinct monkeys, humans, and their nearest kin--progressively increased over time. New research on one of the oldest and most complete fossil primate skulls from South America shows instead that the pattern of brain evolution in this group was far more checkered. The study, published today in the journal Science Advances and led by researchers from the American Museum of Natural History, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the University of California Santa Barbara, suggests that the brain enlarged repeatedly and independently over the course of anthropoid history, and was more complex in some early members of the group than previously recognized.

"Human beings have exceptionally enlarged brains, but we know very little about how far back this key trait started to develop," said lead author Xijun Ni, a research associate at the Museum and a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "This is in part because of the scarcity of well-preserved fossil skulls of much more ancient relatives."

As part of a long-term collaboration with John Flynn, the Museum's Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals, Ni spearheaded a detailed study of an exceptional 20-million-year-old anthropoid fossil discovered high in the Andes mountains of Chile, the skull and only known specimen of Chilecebus carrascoensis.

"Through more than three decades of partnership and close collaboration with the National Museum of Chile, we have recovered many remarkable new fossils from unexpected places in the rugged volcanic terrain of the Andes," Flynn said. "Chilecebus is one of those rare and truly spectacular fossils, revealing new insights and surprising conclusions every time new analytical methods are applied to studying it."

Previous research by Flynn, Ni, and their colleagues on Chilecebus provided a rough idea of the animal's encephalization, or the brain size relative to body size. A high encephalization quotient (EQ) signifies a large brain for an animal of a given body size. Most primates have high EQs relative to other mammals, although some primates--especially humans and their closest relatives--have even higher EQs than others. The latest study takes this understanding one step further, illustrating the patterns across the broader anthropoid family tree. The resulting "PEQ"--or phylogenetic encephalization quotient, to correct for the effects of close evolutionary relationships--for Chilecebus is relatively small, at 0.79. Most living monkeys, by comparison, have PEQs ranging from 0.86 to 3.39, with humans coming in at an extraordinary 13.46 and having expanded brain sizes dramatically even compared to nearest relatives. With this new framework, the researchers confirmed that cerebral enlargement occurred repeatedly and independently in anthropoid evolution, in both New and Old World lineages, with occasional decreases in size.

High-resolution x-ray computed tomography (CT) scanning and 3D digital reconstruction of the inside of Chilecebus' skull gave the research team new insights into the anatomy of its brain. In modern primates, the size of the visual and olfactory centers in the brain are negatively correlated, reflecting a potential evolutionary "trade-off," meaning that visually acute primates typically have weaker senses of smell. Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that a small olfactory bulb in Chilecebus was not counterbalanced by an amplified visual system. This finding indicates that in primate evolution the visual and olfactory systems were far less tightly coupled than was widely assumed.

Other findings: The size of the opening for the optic nerve suggests that Chilecebus was diurnal. Also, the infolding (sulcus) pattern of the brain of Chilecebus, although far simpler than in most modern anthropoids, possesses at least seven pairs of sulcal grooves and is surprisingly complex for such an ancient primate.

"During his epic voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin explored the mouth of the canyon where Chilecebus was discovered 160 years later. Shut out of the higher cordillera by winter snow, Darwin was inspired by 'scenes of the highest interest' his vista presented. This exquisite fossil, found just a few kilometers east of where Darwin stood, would have thrilled him," said co-author André Wyss from the University of California Santa Barbara.
-end-
This project was carried out through long-standing partnerships with the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (Chile), Universidad de Chile, and Consejo Nacional de Monumentos Naturales (Chile), and it was funded in part by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the U.S. National Science Foundation (Grant no. DEB-9317943, DEB-0317014, DEB-0513476, DEB-9020213, and DEB-9318126), and a John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

Chi Zhang, an expert in computational evolutionary analyses from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is also an author on this paper.

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (AMNH.ORG)

The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869 and currently celebrating its 150 anniversary, is one of the world's preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. The Museum encompasses 45 permanent exhibition halls, including those in the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for temporary exhibitions. It is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, New York State's official memorial to its 33rd governor and the nation's 26th president, and a tribute to Roosevelt's enduring legacy of conservation. The Museum's five active research divisions and three cross-disciplinary centers support approximately 200 scientists, whose work draws on a world-class permanent collection of more than 34 million specimens and artifacts, as well as on specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data and on one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, it is the only American museum authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree and also to grant the Master of Arts in Teaching degree. Annual visitation has grown to approximately 5 million, and the Museum's exhibitions and Space Shows are seen by millions more in venues on six continents. The Museum's website, mobile apps, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) extend its scientific research and collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to additional audiences around the globe. Visit amnh.org for more information.

Follow Become a fan of the American Museum of Natural History on Facebook at facebook.com/naturalhistory, follow us on Instagram at @AMNH, Tumblr at amnhnyc, or Twitter at twitter.com/AMNH.

American Museum of Natural History

Related Science Articles:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.
Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.
Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.
World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.
PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.
More Science News and Science Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.