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J Hum Evol. 2004 Feb;46(2):163-84.

The phylogenetic position of Morotopithecus.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


The phylogenetic relationship of the Ugandan Miocene hominoid Morotopithecus bishopi to fossil and living hominoids remains to be determined. In a cladistic approach to this question, we used three published Miocene character sets as the basis of a phylogenetic analysis: J. Hum. Evol. 29 (1995) 101; Function, Phylogeny, and Fossils: Miocene Hominoid Evolution and Adaptations, 1997, 389. Because these datasets often describe the same anatomy using different characters and states, three different datasets were created to reflect these alternatives. In addition, new postcranial characters describable in Morotopithecus were added to each of the above datasets and a fourth dataset was created using only postcranial characters. The most parsimonious tree(s) recovered in all analyses consistently placed Morotopithecus as a sister taxon to the extant great apes, with Hylobates sister to this clade. Morotopithecus was also consistently more derived than Proconsul, Afropithecus, and Kenyapithecus (as defined prior to the description of Equatorius), but less derived than Oreopithecus, Sivapithecus (only craniodentally) and Dryopithecus. These results imply that Morotopithecus is more derived than Hylobates. However, gibbons are believed to have branched off by at least 18 Ma while Morotopithecus is dated at >20.6 Ma. Possible explanations include: (1) the dating of the Morotopithecus material is too old; (2) the Hylobates divergence time has been underestimated; (3) the great ape condition, and not that of Hylobates, is primitive for hominoids; (4) the similarities of Morotopithecus and great apes are homoplasies. Given current evidence, the first possibility is unlikely, but it is not possible to choose definitively between the latter three possibilities. This conclusion is supported by the fact that despite the consistencies of the analyses, the addition of Morotopithecus and the use of different characters had a large effect on the placement of other Miocene taxa. This raises questions as to the robustness of the connections between Miocene taxa and extant hominoids since different results can be achieved by changing either a few characters, or by adding a single taxon. Many of the characters used to estimate phylogeny may need to be reassessed before a reliable assessment of the phylogenetic position of Morotopithecus can be achieved.

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