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Scientist reveals discovery of ancient primate bones

Danielle Todesco
June 16, 2017 10:27 PM

CUBA, N.M. – A local scientist and his twin sons found something incredible in the Four Corners region that changes what we know about the earliest known primates.

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But he had to sit on that discovery for more than 10 years, doing research and collaborating with scientists across the country before finally releasing it to the public.

Tom Williamson, the curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, discovered something that a lot of us would have probably assumed was just an old squirrel skeleton. The tiny bones he and his sons found actually prove that Earth's earliest primates, the relatives of our ancestors, lived in trees.

"My heart skipped a beat,” Williamson said about the discovery in 2006. “It was racing because this is the first time anybody's found a skeleton of one these animals.”

The bones are 62 million years old. Williamson said his twin sons actually found the bones while they were on a hunt for fossils in the San Juan Basin.

His boys were just 11 years old at the time.

It took nearly 11 years of research, sending the bones off to other scientists and having CT scans done on the remains to finally finish their work.

This June, they were able to publish their work and show the world what they learned.

"Things like what their ankles looked like, how their ankles would have been able to flex things, looking at the claws, the shape of the claws tells you something about how they used their feet and their hands to cling to things, like branches or bark," Williamson said.

He said it proves our oldest relatives lived in trees. It was originally thought that the creatures stayed on the ground searching for insects to eat.

And Williamson said there is a lot more still to come on what they found that day in 2006.

"We found a lot of other things from this particular site, and we're going to slowly be publishing on them. You'll be hearing the exciting news soon, I hope," he said.

Williamson couldn't say exactly where they made the incredible discovery. It's a spot in New Mexico well known among scientists, but they don't want just anyone going there and unearthing fossils. It's actually a federal crime to take anything from that land.

The bones are on loan for research at Yale University. Williamson said they may soon be on display in New Mexico.

Credits

Danielle Todesco

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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