Shortly before a giant asteroid smacked into the what is now Mexico’s Yucatan, 65 million years ago, setting off a firestorm, a nuclear winter and the demise of the dinosaurs, a tiny mammal, weighing just over an ounce, was racing up and down trees and staying out of the way.
Today, one of her descendants is you.
Purgatorius, as she’s known, was the earliest of the primate species that scientists have come across. She gave rise to the whole spectrum of primates we know today, from the tiny one-ounce mouse lemur of Madagascar, to the 450-pound gorillas of Africa’s Congo region, along with the monkeys of Central America and Asia, and the one species of primate that’s to be found all over the planet: humans. All of this from tiny Purgatorius, who took advantage of the opening left by the decline of the dinosaurs. (Bear in mind, though, that the dinos never actually disappeared; they simply adapted and are known today as birds.)
A team of paleontologists studied some tiny bones discovered on Purgatory Hill in Montana. From their studies, they believe that the tiny primate with a brown, bushy tail took advantage of changes that were taking place in plant life, and made the most of fruit that was available in the trees.
Sixty million years later, a new primate, homo sapiens, was evolving – one who walked upright and had opposable thumbs and a much larger brain relative to body size.
Right now, however, homo sapiens may be on the decline, too. Every species goes extinct, sooner or later, and we humans are behaving in ways that appear to be hastening the process, and taking thousands of other species down with us.
So, who might take advantage of the opening left by us? Some scientists suggest raccoons, who are already very smart and curious, as well as handy with their hands. Compared to humans and many other primates, they’re not very social, which is important for building and sharing knowledge and technology, but that could easily change – certainly within a few million years.
Or maybe the dolphins might make a foray back on land. After all, they descended from land animals who went back to the ocean. Maybe they could build on the great success they’ve had in the ocean, where they’ve developed successful strategies for social interaction, culture and avoiding dangerous forms of aggression – which is one thing we humans have failed at spectacularly.
Who knows? But simply seeing what tiny Purgatorius gave rise to shows that life evolves in ways that can be entirely unpredictable.
(The team’s findings were presented at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s 72nd Annual Meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. More info at Discovery News.)