Primate origins: Evolutionary change in digital ray patterning and segmentation

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77 Scopus citations


This study presents evidence that the first primates share with extant lemurs, tarsiers, and anthropoids hand proportions unlike those of their close relatives, the tree shrews (Scandentia), colugos (Dermoptera), and plesiadapiforms. Specifically, early primates as well as modern strepsirhines and haplorhines have relatively short metacarpals and long proximal phalanges giving them a grasping, prehensile hand. Limb development was studied in the primate Microcebus murinus and a comparative sample of rodents, artiodactyls, and marsupials to investigate the role of embryonic patterning in the morphogenesis and evolution of primate hand proportions. Comparative analysis shows that the derived finger proportions of primates are generated during the early phases of digital ray patterning and segmentation, when the interzone cells marking the presumptive metacarpo- and interphalangeal joints first appear. Interspecific variation in relative digit and metapodial proportions therefore has high developmental penetrance; that is, adult differences are observed at early ontogenetic stages. The paleontological, comparative, and developmental data are therefore consistent with the hypothesis that the early Cenozoic origin of primates involved an evolutionary change in digital ray pattern formation ultimately yielding a grasping, prehensile hand.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-351
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Archonta
  • Climbing
  • Hand morphology
  • Limb development
  • Pattern formation
  • Prehensility

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology


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