Dryopithecus is one of 40 genera representing up to 100 species of extinct apes that lived during the Miocene (22.5 to 5.5 million years ago). The fossils of Dryopithecus have been found in the region ranging from Spain to the Republic of Georgia. Dryopithecus fontani was the first fossil great ape discovered. It was discovered in Saint Gaudens, France, by Edouard Lartet in 1856.
Dryopithecus species (referred to as dryopithecines) flourished in Europe between 13 and 7 million years ago. About 9 million years ago, the climate became cooler and dryer, causing a disappearance of tropical regions in Europe. Many of the Miocene apes became extinct at this time. Dryopithecus was one of two lineages (Sivapithecus and Dryopithecus) that survived this climatic change. Dryopithecines presumably survived by migrating with their preferred ecological zones to Africa.
Many dryopithecine fossils have been discovered, and much of the skeleton is represented. Like all living apes, dryopithecines possessed relatively large brains. They also show apelike characteristics associated with a reduced reliance on smell and an increased emphasis on vision: they had shortened snouts and forward-facing eye sockets with overlapping fields of vision. Like all living apes, dryopithecines also lacked a tail. The skeletal remains indicate that dryopithecines were quadrupeds, walking on four legs. They also possessed adaptations to suspensory locomotion: Their stable yet fully extendable elbow joint allowed them hang and swing below branches. In addition, remains of the hands and feet show that they possessed powerful grasping capabilities. All of these characteristics suggest that Dryopithecus moved about the forest canopy in a way that is similar to modern great apes.
The lower molar teeth of Dryopithecus have long had significance for paleoanthropologists. Their five cusps are arranged in a pattern that is observed in all fossil and recent apes as well as humans. It is known as the Y-5 pattern, because the fissures separating the five cusps form a “Y.” This is one of many characters that are used to distinguish apes from monkeys. The size and shape of the other teeth, including large incisors and bladelike canine teeth, suggest that dryopithecines were adapted to a diet of soft, ripe fruits. Aspects of the skeleton that reflect life history variables, including tooth microstructure and brain size, suggest similarities to living apes. Drypothecines apparently lived relatively long lives, matured relatively slowly, and gave birth to one large offspring at a time.
The place of Dryopithecus in human and ape evolution is still debated. A recent discovery (1999) of a new Dryopithecus skull from Hungary shows that the cranium is more similar to that of African apes and early fossil humans than to Asian apes. Thus, scientists suggest that Dryopithecus (or its close relative Ouranopithecus) was the likely ancestor of African apes and humans. If this were the case, the common ancestor of African apes and humans would have originated in Eurasia and later migrated to African to establish separate African ape and human lineages sometime during the late Miocene.
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