Fossilized Skull of a Juvenile Ape Discovered in China

First Posted: Sep 06, 2013 10:25 AM EDT

Penn State researchers have unearthed the cranium of a fossil ape from Shuitangba, a Miocene site in Yunnan Province located in China.

The cranium of the fossil ape (Lufengpithecus) is a significant find, according to team member Nina Jablonski, professor of Anthropology at Penn State. This fossil is the remains of a juvenile ape.

Juvenile crania of apes and hominins are tremendously rare in fossil records, especially those of infants and young juveniles, according to Jablonski.

This is only the second find of a juvenile cranium fossil on record from the entire Miocene period, which existed 23-25 million years ago. Both are from the late Miocene sites of Yunnan Province.

The site, Shuitangba, from where this cranium was retrieved, is over six million years old, which denotes the end of the Miocene epoch when apes had turned into extinct species in most of Eurasia. Remains of the fossil monkey (Mesopithecus) have also been found in Shuitangba, which portrays the earliest existence of monkeys in East Asia.

"The preservation of the new cranium is excellent, with only minimal post-depositional distortion," Jablonski said.

 "This is important because all previously discovered adult crania of the species to which it is assigned, Lufengpithecus lufengensis, were badly crushed and distorted during the fossilization process. In living ape species, cranial anatomy in individuals at the same stage of development as the new fossil cranium already show a close resemblance to those of adults," Jablonski adds.

This cranium is a good example of the cranial anatomy of Lufengpithecus lufengensis  and will give an opportunity to researchers to study it more fully.

"Partly because of where and when Lufengpithecus lived, it is considered by most to be in the lineage of the extant orangutan, now confined to Southeast Asia but known from the late Pleistocene of southern China as well," Jablonski stated.

The researchers found that the cranium exhibited slight resemblance to the living species of Asian orangutan apes but did not show anything specific, which could be regarded as key diagnostic features of orangutan crania. Lufengpithecus seems to signify a late surviving lineage of Eurasian apes, but no specific closeness has been established yet.

Southern China was less affected by climatic changes that led to the extinction of many species during the later Miocene, hence the survival if this lineage is not very astonishing. The researchers are hoping to find more remains belonging to adult individuals, which would aid them in establishing links among members of this lineage as well as with other extant apes and fossils.

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