Tiny new species of great ape lived in Germany 11 million years ago

In the rolling hills of Bavaria 11.6 million years ago, two species of great apes shared the same forest. One, a bipedal omnivore called Danuvius guggenmosi, has been known to science since its discovery at the fossil site of Hammerschmiede. The other, a diminutive leaf-eating ape now named Buronius manfredschmidi, has just been identified from a few teeth and a kneecap found in the same rock layer.

The existence of these two apes in the same time and place, a phenomenon known as syntopy, is a first for the European fossil record of the Miocene epoch. Madelaine Böhme of the University of Tübingen, David Begun of the University of Toronto, and their colleagues reported the find June 7 in the journal PLOS ONE.

A Little Ape with a Soft Diet

Based on the shape of its teeth and patella, Buronius appears to have been a skilled climber that ate mostly soft vegetation like leaves. From the size of the fossils, the researchers estimate it weighed around 10 kilograms (22 pounds), making it the smallest known species of great ape.

In contrast, Danuvius, known from more complete remains including limb bones, was larger and had a more diverse diet that likely included tougher foods. These differences in size and diet preferences probably allowed the two apes to coexist without competing, much like gibbons and orangutans do today in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra.

More Miocene Ape Diversity?

Until now, no Miocene fossil site in Europe has yielded more than one ape species. The Hammerschmiede discoveries break that pattern and hint that ancient ape syntopy may have been more common than the fossil record currently shows. Böhme and colleagues suggest that scientists should take another look at ape fossils from other European sites to check for signs of similar species coexistence.

“The new great ape from Hammerschmiede, Buronius manfredschmidi, is with about 10 kg body weight not only the smallest known crown ape, he attested the first case of hominid syntopy for Europe,” the authors said in a statement. “The leaf-eating Buronius shared the habitat with the omnivorous bipedal ape Danuvius guggenmosi.”

Some experts have questioned whether Danuvius is truly a new genus or species of hominid based on the available evidence. The discovery of Buronius in the same rock layer lends support to the idea that Hammerschmiede preserves a unique snapshot of ape diversity in the Miocene. But as is often the case in paleontology, more fossils will likely be needed to fully resolve the debate.

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