Rutgers professor discovers 13 million year old ape skull in Kenya

<p>Next year, a high-quality replica of a 13-million-year-old ape skull that was discovered by a Rutgers professor will be displayed at the Rutgers Geology Museum.</p>

Next year, a high-quality replica of a 13-million-year-old ape skull that was discovered by a Rutgers professor will be displayed at the Rutgers Geology Museum.

A Rutgers professor unearthed a 13-million-year-old infant ape skull in Kenya, set to go on display at the Rutgers Geology Museum early next year. 

A high-quality replica of the infant ape skull will go on display Jan. 27 of next year at the Rutgers Geology Museum’s annual open house, said Geology Museum Associate Director Lauren Neitzke Adamo. Isaiah Nengo, lead author of the paper that detailed the discovery, is scheduled to give a talk at the event.

The new exhibit will feature several types of the ape skull, adding to the museum's other attractions which include a mastodon skeleton, a mummy, dinosaur footprints and a giant spider crab, Neitzke Adamo said.

The exhibit will also feature 3-D printed ape skulls that allow kids to examine and measure the skulls to determine different traits, she said.

The infant ape skull helps fill in the gaps of early ape evolution, said Craig Feibel, a professor in the Department of Anthropology. Feibel was a co-author on the paper that detailed the discovery of this Miocene epoch ape skull.

“It’s an important early ape fossil. It belongs to a genus that we’ve known for a long time from other fossils, but none of them as nice as this one,” Feibel said.

Finding an intact skull or cranium is uncommon, he said. Bones are easily destroyed by weather and carnivores tend to crunch up bones leaving little more than teeth, the hardest tissue in the body.

Skulls provide a wealth of information with the advent of new analytical tools, Feibel said. The Proton Synchrotron at CERN works like a high-tech CT scanner allowing scientists to analyze the complete set of unerupted adult teeth inside the infant skull and the bones of the inner ear.

This new imaging technique is so detailed that lines in the unerupted teeth can be used to count how many days the infant ape lived, he said.

The skull was unearthed in the Turkana Basin in Kenya. A lake in the basin has unusual properties that make finding fossils common, Feibel said.

Sediment is constantly burying fossils and stones, while faulting is pushing fossils and stones back up to the surface, he said. During the monsoon season, a period of intense rain, unimpeded by vegetation due to the desert climate, causes fossils to resurface.

“Rutgers is actually a pretty big leader in human evolutionary studies,” Feibel said. “Both on the archeological side and paleontological side, and particularly what we do here in providing what we call context.”

Context helps determine what the environment was like millions of years ago and the resources that were available to creatures of the time, he said.

The fossils and tools found on expeditions in Africa get Rutgers students involved, too. Samples collected abroad are returned to the laboratory on Douglass for analysis, Feibel said. Fieldwork is responsible for several recent graduate theses.

A former graduate student determined the skull’s age by performing argon-argon dating on the volcanic rock that surrounded the fossil, he said.

“(Field research) gave me my future,” said Melissa Boyd.

The graduate student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences has worked on several expeditions. She was responsible for collecting samples of sediment and drawing stratigraphic maps of the area.

Pictures alone are not sufficient, she said. The maps document where samples were taken and are required for the reports.

Antonio Kuilan, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology, works with the minerals left behind by volcanoes.

“The real work starts in the lab,” Kuilan said.

When a volcano erupts, it leaves a blanket of small, glass-like crystals on the ground. Identifying the age of the volcanic crystals above and below a fossil allows the lab to determine when a fossil was buried, he said.

“It’s all happening at Rutgers. You can go to any of these departments and say, ‘I’m interested in understanding evolution.’ You can actually do this work, right now,” Boyd said. “It’s not necessarily something you’re only going to see on TV.”

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