Sunday, 28 August 2022

Fossil Martens... or Not?

When talking about fossil animals on this blog I often mention the earliest known example of a particular group. But this often hides a degree of uncertainty, or even controversy, because such the exact identity of such fossils can be difficult to pinpoint. That's partly because, being, by definition, older than other fossil examples of the group, they are also the most likely to be incomplete or poorly preserved. Often, since we're talking about mammals here, the "oldest known fossil" may consist of little more than a distinctive tooth. 

The second, and perhaps even bigger, problem is that the further you go back to the origin of a group the more it blurs into whatever preceded it. Even if we had perfect remains, or if we could travel back in time and see the animals in life, or take blood samples from them for genetic analysis, there would always be a question of what exactly we were looking at. Where do you draw the line when, in reality, one group will have slowly and perhaps imperceptibly, evolved into a newer one?

Sunday, 21 August 2022

Food for Thought

The word "primate" means "of the first order" and the group of mammals is so-named because, even in the days before evolutionary theory, it was recognised that this is the group that includes our own species. I've previously discussed how primates are distinguished from other mammals, and one of our identifying features is that we tend to have larger brains in proportion to our bodies. (Not uniquely so, of course, given the existence of dolphins and their kin, but certainly well above the average).

But why? What is it about the primate lifestyle that, over the last 60 million years or more, has resulted in them growing larger brains than other, similarly sized, mammals? This is obviously a significant question, since it relates to what is undeniably the key defining feature of our own species and might explain why our planet is inhabited by sapient urbanised monkeys rather than, say, sapient city-building cats. 

Saturday, 13 August 2022

Leaf-Eating Monkeys: The Leaf Monkeys of Sumatra

Black-crested Sumatran langur
When the system of scientific naming that we now use was first devised, all monkeys were placed in a single genus, Simia. The initial listing of names, from 1758, does not include any species we would now recognise as leaf monkeys but, as these were "discovered" over the next few decades, most were placed in Simia, although a few were placed in newly-created genera that contained other, more typically fruit-eating, monkeys. The first naturalist to create a genus specifically for what we would now describe as "leaf monkeys" was Johann von Eschscholtz, a naturalist who had served on a Russian expedition that circumnavigated the globe. His write-ups of that expedition included the first scientific description of the plantlife of California, but they also included the description of a new kind of monkey, which he felt was distinct enough to give its own genus: Presbytis.

That was in 1821, and, while various other naming schemes were suggested through the 19th century, for much of the 20th, all langurs were placed in Eschscholtz's genus as a group distinct from the colobus and other leaf monkeys. During the 1980s, however, the grey and golden langurs, and their various close relatives, were split off into the genera they now occupy, leaving relatively few species still with their older designation.