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Primate evolution linked to global warming says new study

Primate evolution linked to global warming says new study

Primate evolution linked to global warming says new study
July 31, 2006

New research suggests the ancient climate change fueled early primate evolution.

In a paper published in the July 25 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences argue that rapid warming 55 million years ago at the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) drove the dispersal of tarsier-like primates across the globe. Using “a carbon isotope curve recently documented on all three continents”, the researchers estimate that the evolutionary expansion event occurred within a 25,000 year period — a remarkably short amount of time. The findings undermine four previous theories to explain the geographic distribution pattern of early primates.

“The speed of dispersal and the speed of evolutionary change during dispersal are near the maximum for such rates observed today, and the rapid change and dispersal were almost certainly driven by profound greenhouse warming at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary,” said Philip Gingerich, coauthor of the paper and a paleontologist at the University of Michigan.

Temperatures rose by as much as 10 degrees while atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases spiked in a relatively short period of time during the PETM. Scientists are still unsure as to what was responsible for the change, but a leading theory argues that it may have be the result of a massive spike in atmospheric greenhouse gases 55 million years ago due to the rapid decomposition of frozen methane hydrate deposits found in the deep ocean near continental margins and in the Arctic.

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