Researchers have discovered six rare teeth from a prehistoric monkey that lived in Africa 2.5 million years ago and that is believed to have migrated to Europe when the Mediterranean Sea dried up.
The teeth belonged to a macaque that lived in Morocco 2.5 million years ago, and the find has allowed them to fill a gap in the fossil register as there were no records of this species having ever lived in the area at the time.
The remains were found at the palaeontological site of Gafait, which is located in north-eastern Morocco. The researchers had been looking in the area over the course of the last five years.
They found the remains of other animals that they are still investigating, and which are believed to come from various vertebrates, such as small reptiles, mammals, elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses, among other animals.
The six teeth have been linked with a species of Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus), a monkey that weighs around 12 kilogrammes (26 lbs) and that currently lives in northern Africa and Gibraltar, although in the case of the British overseas territory Gibraltar, the animals were introduced there after their extinction in Europe millions of years ago.
Robert Sala-Ramos, director of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (Institut Catala de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolucio Social-IPHES) and professor of the Rovira i Virgili University, 57, explained in an interview with Real Press that these fossilised remains, which are very well preserved, “are filling a gap in the fossil register, as between 2.5 million years ago and 200,000 years ago, there is no evidence of the presence of this animal in the region.”
According to the researchers, the presence of macaques in northern Africa started in the Superior Miocene, as remains from six or seven million years old have been found in the area.
These animals managed to reach Europe around 5.5 million years ago, especially Spain and Italy, where they migrated thanks to a phenomenon called the Messinian salinity crisis.
The professor explained that this phenomenon took place around six million years ago, when the Mediterranean Sea became cut off from the Atlantic Ocean.
Sala-Ramos said: “The Mediterranean sea has a negative balance and is watered thanks to the ocean, as the rivers coming to the sea are not very abundant, except the Nile.”
The professor said that “if the contact with the ocean is cut due to seismic activity, the sea would become dry, and that is what happened six million years ago. The sea was isolated from the Atlantic and there were only some areas of sea left, near Italy and Greece, but the rest was dry.”
The expert explained that the sea was largely dry at that point and the temperature was rather high, and “Africa and Europe were connected”. This allowed for species to migrate between both continents.
The macaques in Europe became extinct a million years ago due to climate change, which began around three or two million years ago. The professor explained that before the climate change, Europe had a tropical climate and then there were some glacial periods, which caused a lot of animals and plants to die.
The macaques could not adapt properly to the new weather conditions and finally died out. The macaques can currently be found in different parts of Africa, as well as in Gibraltar, but the Gibraltar ones were brought over from Africa by humans many years ago.
The professor also explained that like other primates, the macaques lived in groups and were social animals, feeding off fruits and living in forests.
In fact, it is believed that they lived in a forest that was located near what is currently the Sahara desert.
The experts plan to carry out further investigations to clarify whether the monkeys disappeared from that area due to climate change.
The researchers will keep on investigating the remains in order to find out more about their diet, by studying markings on the teeth.