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For Your Bookshelf: THE MONKEY'S VOYAGE by Alan de Queiroz

On a recent trip to Chile, I read a book recommended by my colleague, René Bobe, that I think anyone interested in paleontology and evolution would really enjoy: The Monkey’s Voyage by Alan de Queiroz. This engaging book tackles the topic of biogeography: the study of where different types of animals and plants are found and how they came to be that way. Biogeography may not sound very exciting, but like most subjects, how it is presented makes all the difference. The Monkey’s Voyage is difficult to set down once you pick it because its author weaves a rich narrative of the development of the field from the time of Charles Darwin to the present day. He not only addresses topics as varied as plate tectonics, cladistics, and molecular phylogenetics, but also profiles the personalities involved and how new ideas and techniques have affected our understanding of species distributions.

The main thesis of de Queiroz’s book is that so-called “chance” or “sweepstakes” dispersals of plants and animals across marine barriers have occurred frequently in the history of life. He provides many compelling examples ranging from anole lizards and asters to xenodontine snakes and zucchini, just to name a few. He also details why alternative explanations of their distributions - usually ancient land connections between continents - do not fit genetic and geological data. Some of these events are rather unsurprising, such as mainland birds flying to not-too-distant islands or coconuts floating between islands. de Queiroz likens these relatively straightforward events to the lower rungs of a ladder of decreasing probability of success. He correlates a lizard crossing a short distance on a large piece of driftwood to a middle rung of this hypothetical ladder and reserves the upper rung for events he considers truly “miraculous.” The book’s title is his prime example of this latter category and is the reason I was so interested in reading it.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts on Old Bones, you may recall that I study the evolution of South American mammals. South America is an immensely interesting place to study fossil mammals because - prior to a few million years ago - they all belonged to families and orders found nowhere else. In other words, South America’s ancient mammal communities were as distinctive as those of Australia today (minus cats, rabbits, dogs, and other human imports, of course). This is because South America, like Australia, was an island continent for most of the past 66 million years. The Panamanian Land Bridge that now joins it to North America only formed within the past few million years, facilitating a major exchange of plants and animals that has obscured much of the South America’s unique biological history.

A Geoffroy's spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), one of nearly 130 species of living South American monkeys. Photo by D. Croft. Reuse permitted under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Because South America was an island continent for tens of millions of years, the origin of its monkeys and tamarins has long been debated. It was clear to most scientists that primates did not originate in South America. But where did South America’s monkeys come from and how did they get there? The Monkey’s Voyage provides a detailed explanation. The short version is that they most likely rafted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa more than 30 million years ago.

Sound like a tall tale? I have always felt a bit sheepish about that explanation myself, even though I knew that alternative explanations were much less likely. After reading de Queiroz’s book, I have renewed confidence not only in that incredible explanation, but also the generality of trans-oceanic dispersals in general. I encourage you to hop aboard The Monkey’s Voyage and see what you think!

-Dr. Darin Croft is an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio
Posted: 12/24/2015 12:00:00 AM by croftdarinadmin | with 0 comments
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