Fossil of Smallest Old World Monkey Species Discovered in Kenya

Michael Plavcan
University Relations

Michael Plavcan

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Researchers from the National Museums of Kenya, University of Arkansas, University of Missouri and Duke University have announced the discovery of a tiny monkey that lived in Kenya 4.2 million years ago.

Nanopithecus browni was the same size as a modern talapoin monkey, the smallest living Old World monkey species that weighs only 2 to 3 pounds, about the size of a cottontail rabbit. Talapoins are part of a large group of monkeys called guenons, which are commonplace and widespread across Africa today. Most species are several times larger in size than Nanopithecus browni.

Guenon evolution is poorly understood but thought to be driven by changes in forest habitats, with the distribution of modern species reflecting the breakup and re-convergence of ancient forests. Talapoins live only in West Central Africa, are confined to tropical forests, and are thought to be dwarfed from a larger ancestor in response to life in woody, swampy habitats.

A photo of the arid Kanapoi site in Kenya, east Africa.
The Kanapoi site in Kenya, east Africa.
Map showing Africa and the site of Nanopithecus in eastern African and the present range of talopin monkeys in western Africa.
Location of Kanapoi site where Nanopithecus browni was found compared to present day distribution of talapoin monkeys. Image prepared by research team. Map from Google Earth.
Silhouettes of a typical guenon, the much smaller Nanopithecus browni and a domestic cat, for comparison.
Typical guenon (Allenopithecus), left, compared to how large Nanopithecus browni, middle, would have been. The typical domestic cat included for scale comparison. Illustration created by Carol Ward.

Nanopithecus browni, though, was found in Kenya on the eastern side of the continent, at a site called Kanapoi. The Kanapoi habitat was dry and covered with grasslands and open forests — a very different place from the tropical forests of Cameroon and Gabon in West Central Africa. It is also at Kanapoi where remains of some of the earliest human ancestors, Australopithecus anamensis, have been found and would have lived alongside Nanopithecus browni.

Nanopithecus browni is the second oldest guenon found so far, just younger than the guenon single tooth found 10 years ago on the Arabian Peninsula. The ancient date, combined with a habitat so different and so far away from that of modern talapoins, reveals a much more complex evolution of guenon monkeys than previously thought. This new enigmatic member of the primate family reveals that dwarfing occurred far longer ago than scientists suspected and may have happened more than once, and in very different habitats perhaps for different reasons.

Nanopithecus browni was discovered by the West Turkana Paleo Project, led by Fredrick Kyalo Manthi of the National Museums of Kenya, with project co-leaders Carol Ward of the University of Missouri and Michael Plavcan of the University of Arkansas. The fossils were analyzed in collaboration with Richard Kay of Duke University.

The fossil is housed at the National Museums of Kenya. The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Human Evolution.

"The discovery of Nanopithecus browni reaffirms Kenya's contribution to understanding the evolution and diversity of Pliocene fauna and the environmental contexts in which they lived. Environmental changes during the Plio-Pleistocene may have influenced the present-day distribution of guenons," said Manthi.

Nanopithecus browni is named after the late Francis Brown of the University of Utah for his contribution to understanding the geological history of the Omo-Turkana Basin within which the Kanapoi site is located.

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among fewer than 2.7 percent of universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.

About the National Museums of Kenya: The National Museums of Kenya is a state corporation established by an act of Parliament, the Museums and Heritage Act 2006. The National Museums of Kenya is a multidisciplinary institution whose role is to collect, preserve, study, document and present Kenya's past and present cultural and natural heritage.

Contacts

Michael Plavcan, professor
Department of Anthropology
479-575-2546, mplavcan@uark.edu

Matt McGowan, science and research communications officer
University Relations
479-575-4246, dmcgowa@uark.edu

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