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19-Nov-2004

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Your great-great-grand ape? New fossil may be ancestor to all great apes, even humans



Artist's reconstruction of Pierolapithecus catalaunicus, an ancient ape that may have been the last common ancestor of modern great apes. [Image AAAS/Science/Illustration by Todd Marshall]
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

All the great apes -- humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans -- have evolved from a single ape ancestor. Researchers called "paleontologists" have discovered a new fossil skeleton in Spain that may now tell us what that ancestor looked like.

Salvador Moy-Sol of the Miguel Crusafont Institute of Paleontology in Barcelona, Spain and his colleagues were just getting started at a new digging site near Barcelona when they discovered the first piece of the skeleton. It was a tooth, churned up by a bulldozer that was clearing the land for digging.

"Paleontologists in Spain say 'you don't find a good fossil, the good fossil finds you,'" Moy-Sol said.

The researchers kept digging and uncovered one of the most complete skeletons ever found from this time period. The fossil find includes parts of the skull, ribcage, spine, hands and feet, along with some other pieces.

Moy-Sol and his colleagues named the new ape Pierolapithecus catalaunicus. ("Pierolapithecus" refers to the village of Els Hostalets de Pierola, near the fossil site, and "catalaunicus" is for Catalonia, the region of Spain where the site is located.) They describe their discovery in the 19 November issue of the journal Science.

The individual that the paleontologists discovered was probably male, a fruit-eater, and a little smaller than a chimpanzee.

By studying the fossil bones, the researchers could tell that they belonged to an ape that shared many important similarities with modern great apes. In particular, this ape had special adaptations for tree-climbing, just like other great apes do.

Pierolapithecus had a wide, flat ribcage, a stiff lower spine, flexible wrists, and shoulder blades that lay along its back. These features would have helped Pierolapithecus assume an upright posture and climb up and down, the researchers say.

The shape of Pierolapithecus' skull suggests that its face was also very great-ape-like, especially the area around the eyes, according to Moy-Sol.

The skeleton is approximately 13 million years old, which would make it just about the right age to be the last ancestor common to all modern great apes, the researchers say. Or, if the ancestor wasn't Pierolapithecus exactly, it may have looked a lot like Pierolapithecus and been closely related.

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Click here for additional pictures of Pierolapithecus

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