Saturday, June 29, 2013

Newsflash: North America, Why No Monkeys?

I've said it countless times: I am not a monkey person. That does not mean the monkeys will not be covered on this blog. They just are not my cup of tea. Every so often, however, I feel obligated to do something related to monkeys because a lot of people think monkeys make everything better- even blogs.

So, for all you monkey people out there, have you ever wondered why North America has no monkeys? Well, Popular Science did an awesome article explaining exactly why: 

"I spoke to Dr. John Flynn, a paleontologist and expert on mammalian evolution at the American Museum of Natural History, to find out why the US is stuck with lame squirrels and pigeons and stuff rather than cool monkeys. "In terms of modern primates, that's a true observation," he said. "But 50 million years ago, there were primates here." It turns out there are lots of reasons why the ancient primates that inhabited what is now the United States--and even Canada!--no longer call those areas home.

Primates came to the New World (meaning North and South America) from, we think, Africa. As improbable as it sounds, scientists think early primates crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed on the shores of both continents tens of millions of years ago, probably on some kind of vegetation raft. That's how most plants and animals get to isolated islands--which the Americas were, at the time. Fossils have been recovered of early primates in Texas a whopping 43 million years ago, the oldest primate fossil ever found in North America. But the continents looked very different then, compared to now; most importantly, North and South America were completely different islands. The Isthmus of Panama, which we now refer to as Central America, didn't appear until much later, by which time the climate on both Americas was very different from when the primates first landed there.
When they did first land here, the climate was much warmer than it is now, and the primates evolved and diversified to take advantage of that.

When they did first land here, the climate was much warmer than it is now, and the primates evolved and diversified to take advantage of that. During the Eocene, lasting from 56 to 33.9 million years ago, the planet warmed to an incredible degree. We've found evidence of palm trees in Alaska from that era. The entire planet, besides the very tips of the Arctic and Antarctic, was probably covered in rainforests, much of it tropical. For a monkey coming over from Africa, North America would have looked just great.

 Early primates thrived on both continents, with no contact between them. In North America, there were two main families of these primates: the omomyids and the adapids. There's some variation in size, behavior and diet, but in general, these were small, tarsier-like creatures with grasping hands and claws, large eyes, and bodies adapted to eat fruits, leaves, and insects. There's a lot of debate about the modern-day relatives to these primates; some think they're strepsirrhines, the family including lemurs, lorises, and bushbabies, but others think they're basal relatives of the tarsiers (which are primates, but not closely related to other monkeys).

Then the planet began to cool, and cool quickly. Forests died out. The poles covered with ice. Many of the flora and fauna that had populated the planet during the Eocene just couldn't survive in the new, colder world. This event is called the Grande Coupure--occurring about 33.9 million years ago, it was a mass extinction of animals, in which most of the world's creatures (aside from a precious few, like the Virginia opossum and the dormouse) were unable to adapt to the new climate and perished. It hit the primate family especially hard. In the New World, the primate population shrunk significantly. Any primate living in, say, the Great Lakes region simply went extinct, unable to cope with the new Wisconsin winters. " - Source with more. 

In other words, North America has no native monkeys for the same reason Paris and London are not crawling with monkeys. On some level, we have to sympathize; being relatively hairless primates, we wouldn't like living in Wisconsin winters, either.

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