Paleo Patrol: Primates of the Caribbean

Erin Wayman (pictured in Cardiff, Wales) writes Paleo Patrol for EARTH.

Credit: 

Spencer Wayman

The only monkeys you’ll find on the islands of the Caribbean today were brought there (intentionally or not) by people. But just a few thousand years ago, thriving populations of primates existed across the Caribbean. The discovery of exceptionally well-preserved monkey bones in the Dominican Republic is helping researchers better understand the evolutionary history of these now-extinct primates.

The bones — including a skull, teeth, legs and arms — were found last summer by scuba divers exploring a submerged limestone cave off Hispaniola. Alfred Rosenberger, an anthropologist at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York, and colleagues describe the monkey, called Antillothrix bernensis, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The monkeys of the Caribbean originated in South America. And in many ways, Antillothrix resembles a modern capuchin monkey. (Remember Ross’ pet monkey on “Friends”? That was a capuchin.) But some aspects of its physical appearance are much more primitive. In fact, some features of its teeth look a lot like the extinct species Killikaike blakei, which lived in Argentina during the Early Miocene (roughly 23 million to 16 million years ago) and was probably an ancestor of capuchin monkeys. Rosenberger and his team say the ancient characteristics imply that the ancestors of Antillothrix probably reached Hispaniola during the Miocene before the origin of modern South American monkey species. (The new Antillothrix bones, however, only date to 3,850 years ago.)

The discovery also offers some insight on Caribbean primates’ ancestry. To date, researchers have found two other monkey genera in the Caribbean: Paralouatta (in Cuba) and Xenothrix (in Jamaica). Some scientists think these monkeys descended from a single primate ancestor, likely a species related to modern titi monkeys. Rosenberger has argued that multiple species colonized the Caribbean. In his paper, he says the new Antillothrix bones support this conclusion because the species is clearly related to capuchins, not titis — evidence that there were at least two monkey lineages present in the Caribbean.

The bones must be pretty convincing. New Scientist talked with Ross MacPhee, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who has been a proponent of the single ancestor hypothesis. He told New Scientist he “now agrees several species crossed the ocean to reach the Caribbean from South America.”

The BBC has some great pictures and video online, if you’re curious about what the bones look like and how they were found.

Erin Wayman
Thursday, July 22, 2010 - 11:30