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New ancient primate species discovered in San Diego

Posted at 9:01 PM, Sep 05, 2018

SAN DIEGO - New paleontological findings show that small primates roamed San Diego roughly 45 million years ago.

Several new species of extinct primates were recently identified by scientists after sitting in a museum drawer for decades.

“A completely new branch on the tree of life,” said. Dr. Chris Kirk, who was one the scientists that made the discovery.

He and fellow scientist Amy Atwater are credited with identifying three new species from what had just been old bones in the archives of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

“It’s pretty rare in this day and age,” said Kirk. “In the 21st century anywhere in the lower 48 to come across not just one or two, but three new species of fossil primates found in a major metro area is amazing.”

The specimens were collected in the 1980's and 90s by paleontologist Stephen Walsh, Ph.D. while Mission Valley was being developed.

“When you’re walking around your local IKEA in San Diego under several feet of concrete beneath your feet there may be an amazing collection of Eocene fossil mammals,” said Kirk.

Kirk and Atwater identified the new species from jaw fragments and realized they had something special when nothing they had was on record.

“It just sort of dawned on us,” added Kirk.

The primates are called Omomyids and are closely related apes and humans.

“The direct fossil evidence for the earliest stages of human evolution are represented by omomyids,” said Kirk.

The new species are named Gunneltarsius randalliBrontomomys cerutt, and Ekwiiyemakius walshi (after Walsh and the Cuayamaca Native Americans).

Kirk says 45 million years ago these primates were among of a whole bevy of wildlife in San Diego when it’s climate resembled a tropical rainforest.

The fossils are at the San Diego Museum of Natural History.