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Analysis of fossils found in Canada’s far north has revealed that two previously unknown species of ancient primates lived above the Arctic Circle about 52 million years ago, according to new research.
The now-extinct animals belonged to a section of the primate family tree that branched off before lemur ancestors diverged from the common ancestors of monkeys, apes and humans, research assistant Dr. Chris Baird, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas and senior curator at the university’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.
The two sister species lived on what is now Ellesmere Island in northern Canada. They are the first known primatomorphans, or primate relatives, to live at latitudes north of the Arctic Circle, according to a study published in the journal Wednesday. Plus one.
Two species are named Ignatius mackenae and Ignatius dawsona.
“To get an idea of what Ignatius looked like, imagine a cross between a lemur and a squirrel that was about half the size of a domestic cat,” Beard said. “Unlike living primates, Ignatius had eyes on the side of its head (instead of facing forward like ours) and had claws on its fingers and toes instead of claws.”
When the researchers analyzed the fossil fragments, Ignatius’ jawbones and teeth appeared different from those of other primates living in southern North America.
“What I’ve been doing for the past few years is trying to understand what they’re eating, and if they’re eating different things than their mid-latitude counterparts,” said study lead author Kristen Miller, a doctoral student at the university. Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.
Arctic primates developed special features in their jaws and teeth to gnaw on hard foods such as nuts and seeds as opposed to a preferred diet of ripe fruit. This physical adaptation was probably because for half of the year, the species lived in the darkness of the arctic winter, when finding food was much more difficult.
“This, we think, is probably the greatest physical challenge in ancient environments for these animals,” Beard said.
These findings can also be used to understand how animals adapt and evolve during periods of climate change—such as species facing the human-driven climate crisis today.
Researchers believe primatomorphans descended from an ancestral species that trekked north From the more southern regions of North America. According to Miller, similar fossils have been found throughout Wyoming, Texas, Montana and Colorado.
“No primate relatives have ever been found at such extreme latitudes,” Miller said. “They are typically found in tropical regions around the equator. I was able to do a phylogenetic analysis, which helped me understand how the Ellesmere Island fossils are related to species found in the mid-latitudes of North America.”
The common ancestor of the two Ignatius species probably reached Ellesmere Island about 51 million years ago, Beard said. At that time, it was a peninsula jutting into the Arctic Ocean from adjacent parts of North America.
Ignatius McKennay and Ignatius Dawsona are named after two of Baird’s former colleagues and mentors, he explained: the late paleontologist Dr. Mary Dawson of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and Dr. Malcolm McKenna of the American Museum of Natural History. New York, both worked extensively on Ellesmere Island.
In these ancient times, the Arctic Circle was a warmer, more hospitable place for life. Global warming made the region much warmer and wetter with a swamp-like environment. Warmer temperatures during this period likely encouraged Igancius’ ancestors to move north.
“Winter temperatures can be as low as freezing for short periods of time, but we know that constant freezing temperatures were rare because crocodiles have been found on Ellesmere Island and they can’t survive long periods of ice,” Baird said. “During the summer, the temperature reached about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Despite the warmer temperatures, primates still had to adapt to survive in their unique northern ecosystem. They grew larger than their southern relatives, who were like squirrels; Such growth typically occurs in mammals living in northern latitudes because it helps them maintain their required core body temperature, Beard said.
“(The findings) suggest to expect dramatic and dynamic changes in the Arctic ecosystem as it transforms in the face of continued warming,” Baird said. “Certain animals that do not currently live in the Arctic will colonize the region, and some of them will adapt to their new environment in ways that parallel Ignatius’s. Likewise, we can expect some new colonists to diversify the Arctic, just as Ignatius did.”
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