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NMSU professors, graduate explore tiny, complex brain of Old World monkey

The brain hidden inside the oldest known Old World monkey skull has been visualized for the first time with the help of two professors and a graduate from New Mexico State University.

Lauren Gonzales, an NMSU graduate studying for her doctorate in evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, coauthored a study on a 15-million-year-old monkey brain with two NMSU anthropology professors who first discovered the skull. (Courtesy photo)

Researchers were able to produce a 3-D scan of a 15-million-year-old monkey brain discovered in Kenya by two New Mexico State University anthropology professors. (Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology ? Courtesy photo)

The creature?s tiny but remarkably wrinkled brain supports the idea that brain complexity can evolve before brain size in the primate family tree.

The ancient monkey, known scientifically as Victoriapithecus, first made headlines in 1997 when its fossilized skull was discovered on an island in Kenya?s Lake Victoria, where it lived 15 million years ago.

Researchers using high-resolution X-ray imaging have peered inside its cranial cavity and created a three-dimensional computer model of what the animal?s brain likely looked like.

Micro-CT scans of the creature?s skull show that Victoriapithecus had a tiny brain relative to its body.

Coauthors Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Lauren Gonzales of Duke University calculated its brain volume to be about 36 cubic centimeters, which is less than half the volume of monkeys of the same body size living today.

If similar-sized monkeys have brains the size of oranges, the brain of this particular male was more akin to a plum.

?When Lauren finished analyzing the scans she called me and said, ?You won?t believe what the brain looks like,?? said coauthor Brenda Benefit, a professor of anthropology in NMSU?s College of Arts and Sciences who first discovered the skull with NMSU coauthor Monte McCrossin, associate professor of anthropology.

Despite its puny proportions, the animal?s brain was surprisingly complex. The CT scans revealed numerous distinctive wrinkles and folds, and the olfactory bulb -- the part of the brain used to perceive and analyze smells -- was three times larger than expected.

?It probably had a better sense of smell than many monkeys and apes living today,? said Gonzales, an NMSU alum studying for her doctorate degree at Duke. ?In living higher primates you find the opposite: the brain is very big, and the olfactory bulb is very small, presumably because as their vision got better their sense of smell got worse. But instead of a tradeoff between smell and sight, Victoriapithecus might have retained both capabilities.?

The findings, published in the July 3 issue of Nature Communications, are important because they offer new clues to how primate brains changed over time, and during a period from which there are very few fossils.

?This is the oldest skull researchers have found for Old World monkeys, so it?s one of the only clues we have to their early brain evolution,? Benefit said.

In the absence of fossil evidence, previous researchers have disagreed over whether primate brains got bigger first, and then more folded and complex, or vice versa.

?In the part of the primate family tree that includes apes and humans, the thinking is that brains got bigger and then they get more folded and complex,? Gonzales said. ?But this study is some of the hardest proof that in monkeys, the order of events was reversed -- complexity came first and bigger brains came later.?

The findings also lend support to claims that the small brain of the human ancestor Homo floresiensis, whose 18,000-year-old skull was discovered on a remote Indonesian island in 2003, isn?t as remarkable as it might seem. In spite of their pint-sized brains, Homo floresiensis were able to make fire and use stone tools to kill and butcher large animals.

?Brain size and brain complexity can evolve independently; they don?t have to evolve together at the same time,? Benefit said.

Benefit and McCrossin excavated the skull during the 1990s from 15 million-year-old Middle Miocene deposits on a small island in Lake Victoria, Kenya.

?The discovery was very important because the skull looks different from what people had predicted that ancestral monkeys would look like, which in turn changed our concept of what the common ancestor of monkeys and apes would look like,? Benefit said. ?It was truly fun. It was fulfilling a long held dream.?

At the time of the excavation, Benefit and McCrossin couldn?t get a good glimpse of the inside of the skull, and estimated the brain?s volume was small but not abnormally small, Benefit said.

It was only a few years ago that the micro-CT scans by Spoor allowed Gonzales, then a graduate student at NMSU, and Spoor to get a better sense of the brains? volume.

Improved scans ?allowed (Spoor) and Lauren to use the impressions the brain had made inside of the skull, which thankfully were fairly deep and clear in this case, to extract the brain from the skull,? Benefit said. ?Lauren and Fred were actually able to use a 3D printer to make a solid printout of the brain.?

The work was funded by the Max Planck Society and University College London. The skull was originally discovered with support from the National Science foundation.