Rare Primate Found in Nebraska Is a Clue About the Future

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Fossils previously found in Nebraska have been connected to fossils from China, revealing how one species of primate existed millions of years after its relatives became extinct in the region and establishing a blueprint for how species bridge a changing climate.

Paleontologists from the University of Kansas and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing, published their findings about how Ekgmowechashala came to North America millions of years after similar primate species vanished from the Earth.

Ekgmowechashala is a species found to have bridged the gap between North American primates that vanished during a massive cooling event 34 million years ago and the arrival of the Clovis people, which are one of the oldest known cultures in North America.

The findings were published in the Journal of Human Evolution on Monday. The results provided scientists with clues about how a species can prevail when its environment is disrupted by a changing climate—a challenge that humans are faced with today.

A collection of fossils believed to be the evolutionary “series” of man from his earliest existence, millions of years ago. Researchers recently published findings about the Ekgmowechashala, the last primate species in North America before the arrival of the Clovis people.
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During the project, researchers compared Ekgmowechashala fossils from North America to fossils from Palaeohodites—another primate species—discovered in China, according to a report by the University of Kansas. The Palaeohodites fossils were discovered in the 1990s by study co-author Chris Beard.

The results showed the species to be closely related and revealed that Ekgmowechashala was a primate species, something that had perplexed researchers for years given that the fossils put the species in North America 30 million years ago—4 million years after all other primates vanished from the continent. A changing climate made the region much cooler and drier and therefore inhospitable to the former species.

The discovery showed that Ekgmowechashala did not somehow survive the massive cooling event that caused drier conditions in North America. Instead, the species’ ancestors emigrated to North America through the Beringian region that once connected Asia and North America millions of years after primates vanished from the latter.

“Our analysis dispels the idea that Ekgmowechashala is a relic or survivor of earlier primates in North America,” said Kathleen Rust, a doctoral candidate with Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas and a co-author of the study.

“Instead, it was an immigrant species that evolved in Asia and migrated to North America during a surprisingly cool period, most likely via Beringia.”

Newsweek has reached out to Rust by email for additional comment.

The discovery, documented in Monday’s publication, shows that Ekgmowechashala is a prime example of the Lazarus effect, in which a species shows up in the fossil record long after their relatives have died off, according to the report.

The discovery also sheds light on how species persevere through a massive environmental change that makes their home inhospitable—by migrating to more hospitable climates.

Rust said the research is crucial to learning how past organisms reacted to massive shifts in climate and environment.

“In such situations, organisms typically either adapt by retreating to more hospitable regions with available resources or face extinction,” she said.

“Around 34 million years ago, all of the primates in North America couldn’t adapt and survive. North America lacked the necessary conditions for survival. This underscores the significance of accessible resources for our non-human primate relatives during times of drastic climatic change.”

In addition to laying a blueprint for how species might survive massive environmental shifts in the future, the discovery also bridges an important gap in the evolution of humans, after Clovis people arrived in North America 25 million years after Ekgmowechashala vanished.

“Understanding this narrative is not only humbling, but also helps us appreciate the depth and complexity of the dynamic planet we inhabit,” Rust said. “It allows us to grasp the intricate workings of nature, the power of evolution in giving rise to life and the influence of environmental factors.”