Fossil General Genomics

Rise of the Continent of the Monkeys

A NERC-funded project studying New World monkey diversity through genomics and fossils.

New World primates live in the tropical regions of Central and South America, and include such well-known and charismatic species as spider monkeys, howler monkeys, marmosets and capuchins. Today, there are more than 170 species known in five families, which collectively exhibit a broad range of different body sizes, diets and activity. Remarkably, all this diversity originated from a single common ancestor that reached South America from Africa 35-45 million years ago, probably by being transported over sea on a raft of vegetation.

Why and how did this ancestor give rise to all the varied species that make up modern New World primate radiation? What were the drivers leading to the diversification of the different families? Were abiotic factors like changes in climate, the uplift of the Andes mountains, and the development of the Amazon river, or were biotic factors (competition with other mammals) more important in driving diversification? Can we identify when and why there were changes in body size, diet and activity pattern in different New World primate groups?

Our proposed project will attempt to answer these questions. To do so, we will combine two very different, but complementary, types of data: genomic data, which provides detailed information on living species, and fossil data, which provides (often very incomplete) information on past diversity. Previous studies have usually used either genomic data or fossil data, but ours will combine the two, to take advantage of their different strengths and to compensate for each other’s weaknesses.