Millions of years before humans first arrived in North America, another primate made the journey across what is now known as the Bering Land Bridge. Paleontologists have uncovered the story of this long-lost primate relative, called Ekgmowechashala.

Ekgmowechashala lived around 30 million years ago in North America. At this time, the continent was experiencing major environmental changes – it was getting colder and drier.

These conditions caused all of the primates living in North America at the time to go extinct, around 34 million years ago. Then, over 4 million years later, Ekgmowechashala suddenly appeared in the North American fossil record. Scientists were puzzled – where did this primate come from?

To solve the mystery, researchers compared Ekgmowechashala fossils found in Nebraska to fossils of an older primate discovered in China, called Palaeohodites. They created an “evolutionary tree” to show how these primates were related using special scientific software. This tree revealed that Ekgmowechashala was closely related to Palaeohodites from China.

This finding helped the scientists understand Ekgmowechashala’s unexpected arrival in North America. Unlike previous theories, Ekgmowechashala was not a leftover primate from before the extinction. Instead, its ancestors must have crossed over from Asia to North America, through a land connection known as Beringia, which used to connect Asia and North America where the Bering Strait is today.

So Ekgmowechashala was actually an immigrant primate. It had traveled thousands of miles from Asia, arriving on the North American continent at a time when the climate was still cool – much earlier than scientists had thought. Its journey shows that even 30 million years ago, animals could migrate between Asia and North America when conditions allowed.

Ekgmowechashala’s mysterious appearance in the North American fossil record after other primates had gone extinct earned it the name of a “Lazarus taxon” by scientists, referring to the biblical story of Lazarus being resurrected from the dead. Just like Lazarus, Ekgmowechashala seemed to rise from nowhere after a long absence.

Understanding the migrations of ancient animals like Ekgmowechashala helps scientists learn how organisms responded to large environmental changes in the past. Its story is a reminder of how climate change has impacted life on Earth for millions of years.

Ekgmowechashala’s journey was one of the earliest chapters in the evolutionary history that eventually led to humankind. Although it lived long before the first humans, this immigrant primate paved the way for our own species’ arrival in North America.


Sources

The University of Kansas | Kathleen Rust, Xijun Ni, et al., Phylogeny and paleobiogeography of the enigmatic North American primate Ekgmowechashala illuminated by new fossils from Nebraska (USA) and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (China). Journal of Human Evolution (2023). doi.org/10.1016/j.jhevol.2023.103452


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