Ape bones lend an ear to evolutionary history

The bony chamber that houses the inner ear reveals a new way to map the evolutionary history of extinct ape species.

Virtual three-dimensional model of a gibbon skull with part of the inner ear highlighted in red. Image credit: Alessandro Urciuol (CC BY 4.0)

Humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and gibbons all belong to a group known as the hominoids. This ‘superfamily’ also includes the immediate ancestors and close relatives of these species, however in many instances the evolutionary relationships between these extinct ape species remain controversial.

While DNA can help evolutionary biologists to work out how living species are related to one another, fossils are typically the principle source of information for extinct species. Inferring evolutionary relationships from fossils must be done with caution, but the bony cavity that houses the inner ear – which is involved in balance and hearing and fairly common in the fossil record – has proven useful for tracing the evolution of certain groups of mammals. However, no one had previously looked to see if this structure could give insights into the evolutionary relatedness among living and extinct hominoids.

Urciuoli et al. have now used a 3D imaging technique to capture the complex shapes of the inner ear cavities of 27 species of monkeys and apes, including humans and two extinct apes (Oreopithecus and Australopithecus). The results confirmed that the shape of these structures most closely reflected the evolutionary relationships between the species and not, for example, how the animals moved.

Urciuoli et al. went on to identify features of these bony chambers that were shared within several hominoid groups, and to estimate what the inner ears of the ancestors of these groups might have looked like. The results for Australopithecus, for example, were consistent with it being most closely related to modern humans than other apes, while those for the enigmatic Oreopithecus supported the view that it was a much older species of ape that converged in some respects with other apes still alive today.

The findings highlight the potential of the inner ear for reconstructing the early branches of our family tree. They also offer the prospect of refining the controversial evolutionary relationships within the impressive diversity of extinct ape species.