Why did the apes split from the monkeys between the Oligocence (34-23 mya) and the Miocence (23-5 mya)? Michael Balter
“The team, which reports its discoveries online today in Nature, points out that the split between early apes and Old World monkeys took place during a time of dramatic environmental, climatic, and tectonic changes in East Africa. Indeed, the Oligocene-Miocene boundary was marked by numerous tumultuous geological events, including a collision between the land masses that make up Africa and Arabia on one side and Europe and other parts of Asia on the other. However, just why those changes led the two groups to split "is one of the mysteries we would like to solve" by further research, Stevens says, although she thinks that it could be related to changes in the kinds of food resources available to the primates.
Michael Steiper, an anthropological geneticist at Hunter College in New York City who has conducted numerous molecular studies of primate evolution, welcomes the new findings. "At long last they reconcile the fossil and molecular records of early apes and monkeys," he says.
And Fleagle, after whom one of the species was named, calls the discoveries "a wonderful story of perseverance" over many years of research. As for the team's claims to have found the earliest known ape and Old World monkey ancestors, he says that "their identifications are as good as they can be with the material in hand." The "real split" between the groups could have taken place even earlier, he says.
But Terry Harrison, an anthropologist at New York University in New York City, cautions that the team's claims could be wrong. "Despite the seductiveness of the conclusions, I'm skeptical about the interpretations," he says. Harrison thinks that Rukwapithecus, the claimed ape ancestor, could represent a primate that actually predates the ape-monkey split and that the dental features used to identify it as an ape are "questionable"; and he argues that Nsungwepithecus might not even be a primate, but rather a suiform artiodactyl, a piglike, hoofed animal. "Similar cases of mistaken identity have occurred in the past," Harrison says, including claims for Miocene primates in East Africa that turned out to be artiodactyls and other nonprimates.”
Researchers have long been frustrated by a paucity of fossils from this key period in evolution, which sits at the borderline between two major geological epochs: the Miocene (about 23 million to 5 million years ago) and the Oligocene (about 34 million to 23 million years ago). The earliest known fossils of early apes and Old World monkeys date from the early Miocene and have been found in just a handful of sites in Kenya, Uganda, and North Africa. Meanwhile, molecular studies of existing primates consistently suggest that these two groups arose during the Oligocene, leading scientists to wonder whether the molecular dates are wrong or if paleontologists have been looking in the wrong places.