I examined several definitions of the order primates in a previous post and looked at how any definition of primates has to be constricted when applied to the fossil record. In particular, the closer one gets to the common ancestor between primates and other mammals (insectivores for example) the harder it becomes to tell what is a primate and what is not.
The earliest identifiable primates are the plesiadapiformes. The plesiadapiformes occur from the mid Paleocene to the Eocene (from about 65 mya to about 53 mya). They inhabited both North America and Europe. The plesiadapiformes are an infraorder composed of six families and almost forty genera. The families are:
1) Plesiadapidae (five genera)
2) Carpolostidae (three genera)
3) Saxonellidae (one genus)
4) Microsyopidae (24 genera)
5) Paromomyidae (three genera)
6) Picrodontidae (two genera)
The phylogeny of most of these groups has been worked out in greater or lesser detail. Consider the Plesiadapidae. The earliest genus was Pronothodectes. In North America the earliest member of this genus was Pro. matthewi. Pro. matthewi gave rise to Pro. jepi. From here it gets complicated. Pro. jepi gave rise to two different groups, Nanodectes and Plesiadapis. The Nanodectes lineage goes as follows: N. intermedius, N. gazini, N. simpsoni, and N. gidleyi. The Plesiadapid branch goes as follows: Ples. praecursor, Ples anceps. Ples anceps gave rise to two lineages. The first goes: Chiromyoides minor, C. caesor, C. potior, C. major. The second lineage of Ples. anceps goes as follows: Ples. res, Ples. churchilli. Ples. churchilli also split into two lineages. The first goes: Ples. fodinatus, Ples. dubius. The second lineage is Ples. simonsi, Ples. cookei. The phylogeny of the other families is equally complicated.
Comparitive work on modern primate dentitions has allowed us to come up with some general guidelines on determining things like diet. Based on this we say that the plesiadapiformes were primarily insectivorous with diets resembling modern prosimmians such as lemurs and galagos. However by the late Paleocene - Early Eocene some plesiadapiformes were adopting diets of fruit or leaves.
How are plesiadapifomes related to later primates? There are actually three different views on this question. One view is that plesiadapiformes are not primates because they are distinct from later primates. A second view places them in a suborder with tarsiiformes (because both groups share some traits in common - enlarged, protruding incisors, similar configurations of inner ear anatomy among others). A third view is that they are the earliest primate radiation (because they have primatelike teeth that make them important for understanding primate origins).
Tomorrow I will look at Adapids, Omomyids and anthropoid origins. On Thursday I will resume the discussion of ID and human origins.