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Extinct Primates: Chororapithecus, Pierolapithecus & Samburupithecus

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

While monkeys, lemurs and apes are primates you are familiar with you probably don't know much about some of the extinct primates. This lesson will look to change that, highlighting three extinct primates.

What Is a Primate?

Some have eyes larger than their brains, others have a howl that can be heard from three miles away, some can reach 485 pounds, and there's even a group that can hibernate when food becomes scarce. So, what do all these critters have in common? They are all primates, which is a group of mammals made up of over 200 species that includes apes, monkeys, lemurs, tarsiers, lorises, chimpanzees, and even humans.

Primates are a diverse group
primates

The 200 primate species living on earth right now represent just a sampling of all of the primates that have lived on earth. Let's travel back in time to explore three extinct primates in more detail: Chororapithecus, Pierolapithecus and Samburupithecus.

Chororapithecus

For our first extinct primate, we need to travel back in time 8 million years. Here you will encounter Chororapithecus, which is a distant relative to modern day gorillas. Its name means 'ape from Chorora,' which is a village near where its fossils were found in Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, scientists don't have a lot to go on as they study these primates since the only parts of Chororapithecus found were some teeth. The teeth look a lot like gorilla teeth, and scientists believe that Chororapithecus is the oldest relative of modern-day African gorillas.

This discovery forced scientists to take a closer look at when humans ancestors split from gorillas on the evolutionary timeline. Since Chororapithecus dates back 8 million years, the split for humans and gorillas must have been before that. Prior to the discovery, scientists thought the split was 7 to 8 million years ago. This discovery places the split at 10 million years ago.

The timeline for the divergence of some lineages may need to be altered after the discovery of Chororapithecus fossils
diagram evol

Pierolapithecus

For our next extinct primate, we will need to go back in time 13 million years, where we'll find Pierolapithecus, which may be the last common ancestor (or close to it) of chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and humans. Some scientists dispute this, since its fossils were found in Spain, and Spain is not thought of as the place where a lot of primate evolution took place.

This primate got its name because of where it was found: Els Hostalets de Pierola.Fossils of a skull, some other bones, and teeth show that Pierolapithecus was around 75 pounds and could climb trees. The ribcage of this extinct primate resembles the ribcages of modern-day apes.

Samburupithecus

For the last stop on our journey, we will need to go back 9 million years to meet up with Samburupithecus, which was about the same size as modern day gorillas. Like our other two other extinct primates, Samburupithecus got its name based on where it was found: the Samburu District in Kenya.

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