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NOVA scienceNOW: First Primates

Program Overview


An interdisciplinary collaboration between a paleontologist, an evolutionary anthropologist, and a primate anthropologist sheds new light on how and where primates got their evolutionary start.

This NOVA scienceNOW segment:

  • explains that primates appear in the fossil record around 55 million years ago (mya), when a mouse-sized mammal with full primate characteristics appears.

  • describes key primate characteristics—the ability to leap, long fingers, specialized teeth, and hands uniquely designed for grasping.

  • introduces paleontologist Jonathan Bloch, who reconstructed three complete mouse-like skeletons, plesiadapaforms, that date well before 55 mya.

  • notes that plesiadapaforms have a hallmark characteristic of primates—a nail-like structure rather than claws. This marks the earliest such nail ever discovered, suggesting that plesiadapaforms may be the first primate.

  • introduces Mary Silcox, an evolutionary anthropologist who analyzed the plesiadapaforms bone fragments using a computed tomography (CT) scanner.

  • explains that Dr. Bloch, Dr. Silcox, and primate anthropologist Dr. Sargis devised an algorithm that compares, contrasts, and analyzes animal characteristics and generates possible family trees showing relationships between groups of animals.

  • reports that the plesiadapaforms data produced a single family tree that connects it directly to primates. The surprising fact that the algorithm did not suggest links to other modern groups of animals strongly suggests that plesiadapaforms are primates.

  • theorizes that after dinosaurs became extinct, plesiadapaforms developed a co-evolutionary relationship with plants—plants evolved to produce tasty, nutritious fruits filled with seeds and primates evolved characteristics enabling them to gather the fruits efficiently, which in turn helped the plants spread their seeds.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after the program is taped off the air.

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NOVA scienceNOW: First Primates
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