Purgatorius: What is it?

Wikipedia reports: 
“For many years, there has been a large debate as to whether Purgatorius is a primitive member of the Primates or a basal member of the Plesiadapiforms.” Here (Fig. 1) taxa from the Plesiadapiformes have giant procumbent (rat-like) incisors followed by a long diastema, followed by flat molars…completely UNLIKE Purgatorius. So what were they thinking?

Halliday et al. 2015
nested Purgatorius outside crown group placentals with Protunugulatum (Fig 1). That seems reasonable, though it is twice the size. However, the large reptile tree (LRT, 1044 taxa) was not able to replicate most of the Halliday team’s cladogram, which nested hyraxes with elephant shrews…and horses… and that clade with pre-odontocetes and an early artiodactyl. It just gets worse after that. Protunugulatum was originally allied with condylarths, large plant-eating mammals. Halliday et al. nested it outside the placentals. Wible et al. 2007 nested it with whales + artiodactyls (a clade not validated by the LRT).

Purgatorius is another one of those fossils
known from an incompleted mandible with teeth and little else. Based on a lack of other bones, this is the sort of fossil the LRT cannot successfully resolve and it does not make it onto the list. So we go to plan #2: visual comparisons.

Figure 1. Purgatorius compared to other basal and often Paleocene mammals.

Figure 1. Purgatorius compared to other basal and often Paleocene mammals. Given these choices, Purgatorius looks more like Palaechthon, the basal dermopteran, than any other taxa in the LRT. Taxa in yellow nest together in the LRT with primates. Taxa in pink nest with rats and rabbits. Maelestes is a basal tenrec.

Rat-sized Purgatorius unio
(Valen and Sloan 1965; Latest Cretaceous/Earliest Paleocene) gained some early notoriety as the earliest known primate. Ankle bones found in association with Purgatorius, but not articulation, show signs of being flexible like those of primates (Kaplan 2012).

I can describe Purgatorius in the simplest of terms
based on comparisons to related basal mammal taxa (Fig. 1) and without describing any molar cusps (except one).

  1. small in overall size (skull < 2cm in length)
  2. robust mandible with convex dorsal and ventral rims and straight in occlusal view
  3. incisors likely procumbent, but not large
  4. canine tiny
  5. three robust premolars and three robust molars with one very tall cusp
  6. Premolar #3 taller than other teeth

Based on a visual comparison
of candidate taxa (Fig. 1), Purgatorius looks more like Protungulatum and even more like Palaechthon. The latter nests with flying lemurs like Cynocephalus. So we’re close to the base of primates, but closer to their cousins, and far from plesiadapiformes.

Best I can do for now…

Halliday TJD, Upchurch P and Goswami A 2015. Resolving the relationships of Paleocene placental mammals Biological Reviews. | doi = 10.1111/brv.12242
Kaplan M 2012. Primates were always tree-dwellers. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2012.11423
Van Valen L and Sloan R 1965. The earliest primates. Science. 150(3697): 743–745.
Wible JR, Rougier GW, Novacek MJ and Asher RJ 2007. Cretaceous eutherians and Laurasian origin for placental mammals near the K/T boundary.” Nature volume 447: 1003-1006



Goodbye Scrotifera. Goodbye Euarchontaglires. Goodbye Scandentia. etc. etc.

Earlier the large reptile tree
found that several former clades, like Parareptilia, PterodactyloideaCetacea, Testudinata (Chelonia) Notoungulata, Pseudosuchia, Ornithodira and Pinnipedia were not monophyletic… and that list keeps growing.

The large reptile tree (LRT, 1044 taxa) does not replicate the following mammalian clades:

  1. Scandentia – tree shrews: yes, closely related, but at the bases of different clades.
  2. Euarchontaglires – rodents, rabbits, tree shrews, flying lemurs and primates,  (Fig. 1)
  3. Euarchonta – tree shrews, flying lemurs, primates and plesiadapiformes.
  4. Glires – rodents, rabbits
  5. Scrotifera – Eulipotyphla (see below), bats, pangolins, Carnivora, Euungulata (including whales)
  6. Eulipotyphla – hedgehogs, shrews, solenodons, moles (moles are Carnivora))
  7. Euungulata – perissodactyls, artiodactyls (including whales)
  8. Tenrecidae – tenrecs, some are closer to shrews, others closer to odontocetes
  9. Macroscelidea – elephant shrews, some are closer to tenrecs
  10. Primates – Plesiadapiformes and extant primates, including Daubentonia (the aye-aye. No giant anterior dentary teeth in valid primates.
  11. there are a few more I’m overlooking. I’ll add them as they come to me.
Figure 1. Glires and Euarchonta are two clades within the Mammalia in the LRT.

Figure 1. Glires and Euarchonta are two clades within the Mammalia in the LRT.

Let’s focus on Plesiadapiformes
Bloch et al. 2007 found plesiadapiforms (Plesiadapis, Carpolestes and kin) more closely related to primates than to any other group. They did not test against rodents and multituberculates. The LRT does not replicate these results, but finds plesiadapiforms more closely related to multituberculates and rodents when included.

According to Bloch & Boyer 2002
“Plesiadapiforms share some traits with living primates, including long fingers well designed for grasping, and other features of the skeleton that are related to arboreality.” That’s fine, but there are other taxa in the tree topology with long fingers, too.

Krause 1991 reports, “Paromomyids …have long been regarded by most workers as members of the Plesiadapiformes.” Again, the LRT does not support this, but nests Paromomyids, like Ignacius (Fig. 2), with rodents, like Mus and Paramys. Paromomyids have squared off and flat molars, but Paromomys does not.

Figure 2. The skull of Ignacius nests with other rodents, not plesiadapiformes.

Figure 2. The skull of Ignacius nests with other rodents, not plesiadapiformes. Ironically it is closer to the squirrel-like Paramys than to Paromomys.

Beard 1990 thought paromomyids,
as plesiadapiforms, where close to colugos or “flying lemurs”. The LRT (Fig. 1) does not support this relationship. Rather paromomyids, like Ignacius, were squirrel-like, able to scamper both in the trees and on the ground. Ignacius graybullianus (USNM 421608, Fig. 1) is a new taxon that nests as a basal rodent in the LRT.

Figure 3. Ignacius clarkforkensis known parts.

Figure 3. Ignacius clarkforkensis known parts.

Remmber, no primates 
have giant anterior dentary teeth. The aye-aye, Daubentonia, has such teeth, but the LRT finds it nests with Plesiadapis and multituberculates and rodents, not primates. Yes, plesiadapiformes and Ignacius had long limbs, big brains and binocular vision, but by convergence with primates.

Beard KC 1990. 
Gliding Behavior and palaeoecology of the alleged primate family Paromomyidae (Mammalia, Dermoptera). Nature 345, 340-341.
Bloch J, Silcox MT, et al. 2007.
New Paleocene skeletons and the relationship of plesiadapiforms to crown-clade primates.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 104, 1159-1164.
Kay RF, Thewissen JG and Yoder, AD 1992. Cranial anatomy of Ignacius graybullianus and the affinities of the Plesiadapiformes. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 89 (4): 477–498. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330890409.
Krause DW 1984. Mammal Evolution in the Paleocene: Beginning of an Era. In: Gingerich, P. D. & Badgley, C. E. (eds.): Mammals: notes for a short course. Univ. of Tennessee, Department of Geological Sciences.
Krause DW 1991. Were paromomyids gliders? Maybe, maybe not. Journal of human evolution 21:177-188.