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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 part of the primate family tree that branched off before lemur ancestors diverged from the common ancestors of apes, apes and humans, said study co-author Dr. Chris Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor 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 primatomorphs, 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 have been named Ignacius mckennai and Ignacius dawsonae.
“To get a sense of what Ignacius was like, imagine a cross between a lemur and a squirrel 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 he had claws on his fingers and toes instead of nails.”
When the researchers analyzed the fossil fragments, Ignacius’ jaws and teeth looked different from other primatomorphs that lived in southernmost parts of North America.
“What I’ve been doing for the past couple of years is trying to figure out what they were eating and whether they were eating different materials than their mid-latitude counterparts,” said study lead author Kristen Miller, a doctoral student at the University of the Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.
Arctic primatomorphs have developed special features in their jaws and teeth for chewing harder foods, such as nuts and seeds, as opposed to their preferred diet of ripe fruit. This physical adaptation was likely because for half of the year the species lived in the darkness of the Arctic winter when food was much harder to come by.
“This, we think, is probably the greatest physical challenge of the ancient environment for these animals,” Beard said.
These findings could also be used to understand how animals adapt and evolve during times of climate change, such as with species facing the man-made climate crisis today.
Researchers believe that primatomorphs descended from an ancestor species that headed north from the southernmost regions of North America. Similar fossils have been found in Wyoming, Texas, Montana and Colorado, according to Miller.
“No primate relative has ever been found at such extreme latitudes,” Miller said. “They are usually found around the equator in tropical regions. I was able to do a phylogenetic analysis, which helped me understand how the Ellesmere Island fossils are related to species found in mid-latitude North America.”
The common ancestor of the two Ignacius species likely reached Ellesmere Island about 51 million years ago, Beard said. At the time, it was a peninsula jutting into the Arctic Sea from adjacent parts of North America.
Ignacius mckennai and Ignacius dawsonae are named in part for two former colleagues and mentors of Beard, he explained: 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 Pittsburgh . New York, both worked extensively on Ellesmere Island.
During these ancient times, the Arctic Circle was a warmer and more hospitable place for life. Global warming had made the region much hotter and wetter, with a swamp-like environment. Warmer temperatures during this period likely encouraged Igancio’s ancestor to venture north.
“Winter temperatures may have dropped to freezing for short periods of time, but we know there were almost never sustained freezing temperatures because crocodiles have been found on Ellesmere Island and they can’t survive long freezes,” he said beard. “In the summer, temperatures reached around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Despite warmer temperatures, primatomorphs still had to adapt to survive in their unique northern ecosystem. They grew larger than their southern relatives, which resembled squirrels; such growth commonly occurs in mammals living in northern latitudes because it helps them maintain necessary core body temperatures, Beard said.
“(The findings) tell us to expect dramatic and dynamic changes to the Arctic ecosystem as it transforms in the face of continued warming,” Beard said. “Some animals that don’t currently live in the Arctic will colonize that region, and some of them will adapt to their new environment in ways that parallel Ignacius’s. Similarly, we can expect some of the new settlers to diversify into the Arctic, just as Ignacius did.”