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Paleontology and Primate Evolution

Editor(s):  Kieran McNulty | 

The complex unfolding of human evolution over the past 7 million years is but one small story in the larger volume of primate evolutionary history. Humans, and our hominin ancestors, belong to a family of great apes that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and their fossil precursors. Even these, however, are only the closest of our relatives within the Order Primates – a group that includes organisms as diverse as ring-tailed lemurs, tarsiers, and monkeys from both the Old World and New World. Primates first appeared in the fossil record nearly 55 million years ago, and may have originated as far back as the Cretaceous Period. Since that time, this evolutionary lineage has produced abundant and diverse species in nearly every continent on the planet (primate fossils have not been found in Australia or Antarctica). Primates scamper on the tops of branches, swing beneath them, and even leap acrobatically from tree to tree. Some are dedicated predators, eating small lizards and insects, whereas others are content to munch on leaves, grasses, or fruits.

What, if anything, unites primates as a single group, and how do primate adaptations reflects our evolutionary past? What did the earliest primates look like and how are they related to modern forms? How has climate change influenced the diversification of different primate groups? How do primates navigate arboreal and terrestrial habitats? What processes are involved in fossilization and in dating fossils from the distant past?

These are some of the questions that are addressed in the articles below. Presented at different levels of sophistication and supported with detailed glossaries, these contributions provide a broad but detailed account of the current state of knowledge about primate evolution and the methods used to gather this knowledge. It is only from this context that one can fully apprehend the strangest member of the primate clade: Homo sapiens.

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