Brooklyn College professor part of discovery that suggests earliest primates lived alongside dinosaurs

earliest primate
A lifelike rendering of the newly discovered early primate species Purgatorius mckeeveri.
Illustration by Andrey Atuchin

Scientists now have a clearer understanding of mankind’s earliest primate ancestors — thanks in part to the work of Brooklyn’s own Stephen Chester, paleontologist and assistant professor anthropology at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center at CUNY.

Chester, along with nine other researchers from across the country, recently helped analyze the first fossils of Purgatorius, the oldest genus in the earliest primates called plesiadapiforms. These ancient mammals were small-bodied and ate mostly insects and fruits.

Chester and fellow researcher, professor Gregory Wilson Mantilla from the University of Washington, co-led the study, which analyzed fossilized teeth found around Montana’s Hell Creek — a formation of rocks that dates back 65.9 million years, about 115,000 years after the asteroid landing that eventually killed off the dinosaurs.

Based on the age of the fossils, researchers estimate that the ancestor of all primates — including plesiadapiforms, lemurs, monkeys, and apes — lived among large dinosaurs during the Late Cretaceous period. 

“This discovery is exciting because it represents the oldest dated occurrence of archaic primates in the fossil record,” Chester said. “It adds to our understanding of how the earliest primates separated themselves from their competitors following the demise of the dinosaurs.”

Some of the Chester’s analysis took place in the Evolutionary Morphology Laboratory at Brooklyn College, where he teaches undergraduate students. Though students did not take part in the research for this latest project, other student research has helped uncover the history of early primates, the college said.

earliest primate
High-resolution CT scans of an assortment of fossilized teeth and jawbones of the Purgatorius.Courtesy of Gregory Wilson Mantilla and Stephen Chester

“Stephen Chester’s high-caliber, impactful research in this area with Brooklyn College students has significantly contributed to our understanding of the environmental, biological, and social dependencies that ultimately led to the evolution of primates,” said Peter Tolias, dean of the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences.

Chester, along with Mantilla, were also key members of a groundbreaking discovery of unusually well-preserved animals and plant fossils that revealed details about how the life evolved after the asteroid hit. 

After finding the fossils during a dig in Colorado Springs, Chester and fellow researchers identified fossil mammal species, calculated their body mass based on measures of their skull and teeth, and documented aspects of their anatomy to reconstruct their diet during the million years after the end of dinosaurs.

The team of researchers who collaborated alongside Chester and Wilson Mantilla in this latest discovery includes William Clemens from the University of California Museum of Paleontology: Jason Moore from the University of New Mexico: Courtney Sprain from the University of Florida and the University of California, Berkeley; Brody Hovatter from the University of Washington; William Mitchell from the Minnesota IT Services; Wade Mans from the University of New Mexico; Roland Mundil from the Berkeley Geochronology Center; and Paul Renne another scientist from the University of California, Berkeley. 

This article first appeared on AMNY.com.

earliest primate
Brooklyn College Assistant Professor Stephen Chester.Photo courtesy of Brooklyn College