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J Hum Evol. 1999 Jan;36(1):97-114.

Nails and claws in primate evolution.

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Anthropologisches Institut und Museum, Universität Zürich-Irchel, Winterthurerstrasse 190, Zürich, CH-8057, Switzerland.


The issue of whether nails or claws were present on the digits of the last common ancestor of living primates is central to the understanding of the ecological context in which the order originated. Two lines of evidence are available, the shape (claw, nail, toilet-claw) and the histological structure (one or two horny strata). Here we review the existing data regarding the shape and histological structure of cheirideal appendages in primates and present new information from a wide range of living primates. We demonstrate the presence of a typical toilet-claw in Daubentonia madagascariensis and discuss its consequences, since the alleged lack of such structures in this species has long obscured the issue. The general view that primate nails, with the exception of those in New World primates, consist of only one layer is disproved by the presence of two distinct strata in the nails of the feet of three out of seven catarrhine species examined, as well as in Lemur catta. The combined new and old data indicate that the last common ancestor of the extant primates had lost the typical mammalian claws of its ancestors and developed nails on all pedal digits except digit II, which bore a toilet-claw. All nails as well as the toilet-claw originally consisted of two layers. We present a new hypothesis regarding the adaptational significance of these changes.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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