A new study of interbreeding between two species of modern-day howler monkeys in Mexico is shedding light on why it is so difficult to confirm instances of hybridization among primates-including early humans - by relying on fossil remains.
The University of Michigan-led study is based on analyses of genetic and morphological data collected from live-captured monkeys over the past decade. Morphology is the branch of biology that deals with the form and structure of animals and plants.
The two primate species in the study, mantled howler monkeys and black howler monkeys, diverged about 3 million years ago and differ in many respects, including behaviour, appearance and the number of chromosomes they possess.
Each occupies a unique geographical distribution except for the state of Tabasco in south-eastern Mexico, where they coexist and interbreed in what's known as a hybrid zone.
The researchers found that individuals of mixed ancestry who share most of their genome with one of the two species are physically indistinguishable from the pure individuals of that species.
"The implications of these results are that physical features are not always reliable for identifying individuals of hybrid ancestry. Therefore, it is possible that hybridization has been underestimated in the human fossil record," Liliana Cortes-Ortiz said.
For years, anthropologists have attempted to infer hybridization among human ancestral species based on the fossil record, which represents only a snapshot in prehistory, and have concluded that hybridization is extremely rare, according to first author Mary Kelaita and Cortes-Ortiz.
Given the utility of living primate models for understanding human evolution, the howler monkey study "suggests that the lack of strong evidence for hybridization in the fossil record does not negate the role it could have played in shaping early human lineage diversity," Kelaita said.
The authors conclude that the process of hybridization (defined as the production of offspring through the interbreeding between individuals of genetically distinct populations), the factors governing the expression of morphology in hybrid individuals, and the extent of reproductive isolation between species should be given further consideration in future research projects.
In their study, Kelaita and Cortes-Ortiz analyzed different types of genetic markers, from both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, to trace the ancestry of each howler monkey they studied.
The use of molecular markers made it possible to approximate the relative genetic contributions of the parental species to each hybrid.
A total of 128 hybrid individuals were detected. Kelaita and Cortes-Ortiz found that most were likely the product of several generations of hybridization or of mating between hybrids and pure individuals.
Subsequently, they performed statistical analyses on body measurements and found a large amount of morphological variation in individuals of mixed ancestry.
However, when individuals were classified according to the amount of their genome they shared with each parental species, it became clear that individuals of mixed ancestry that shared most of their genome with one of the species were physically indistinguishable from the pure individuals of that species.
Even individuals that were more "intermediate" in their genetic composition were not completely intermediate in their appearance.
The study is the first to assess genetic ancestry of primate hybrids inhabiting a natural hybrid zone using molecular data to explain morphological variation.
The study has been published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. (ANI)