Today's smallest primate, the pygmy mouse lemur, can reach up to about 5 inches in height — and that's even on the larger side. But the primate skeleton that researchers just uncovered, the oldest ever found on record, stood even smaller than our pygmy friend as it scampered around the earth — a whole 55 million years ago.
Found in an ancient Chinese lake bed and dubbed Archicebus achilles, the fossil could actually help our understanding of the divergence between anthropoids (think modern monkeys, apes, and humans) and smaller, nocturnal primates called tarsiers. According to Xijun Ni, lead researcher and scientist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing,
Archicebus marks the first time that we have a reasonably complete picture of a primate close to the divergence between tarsiers and anthropoids. It represents a big step forward in our efforts to chart the course of the earliest phases of primate and human evolution.
To study the fossil, the research team scanned the rock specimen with high-energy X-rays at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. They could then use these scans to create digital reconstructions of the fossil, allowing them to study Archicebus' adorably tiny, fragiel frame in detail and without, you know, crushing it.
This skeleton is around 7 million years older than any primate before it, so it puts us far closer to pinpointing down the evolution of ancient to modern primates. Meaning it may just help us answer one our most nagging questions: how modern man came to be. [Nature via American Museum of Natural History]