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Tech & Science This bizarre primate has a newly discovered digit

06:05  22 october  2019
06:05  22 october  2019 Source:   nationalgeographic.com

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Watch the nocturnal aye-aye search for food in the forests of Madagascar.

Now, researchers have found a bizarre feature that sets it apart from every other primate , too: a “Rather than just a really odd specimen, we’d discovered a really odd feature that was present The researchers believe the newly identified extra digit ’s function is directly tied to the aye-aye’s already

Aye-ayes have a mishmash of peculiar features, such as huge ears, bushy tails, rodent-like teeth, and a very long fourth finger used to pry grubs out of trees. © Photograph by Pete Oxford, Nat Geo Image Collection

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Adam Hartstone-Rose studies the muscles of forearms, which are surprisingly intricate and easily overlooked. The delicate movements of our hands, for example—like the ability to play a Mozart piano concerto—are only possible thanks to these sinews.

But Hartstone-Rose doesn’t study only human forearms: he specializes in those of many primates, and comparing anatomical differences between species. When his lab at North Carolina State University happened across a dead aye-aye specimen, he was thrilled. “They have these famously strange hands and bizarre fingers,” he says—all the better for research.

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The primate uses its long middle finger to fish for grubs. But scientists just discovered its Problem, though: Having such a long and delicate finger isn’t conducive to getting a good grip on branches as But how on Earth have researchers just now figured out the aye-aye has pseudothumbs, when the

The world's weirdest little primate has gotten even weirder, thanks to the discovery of a tiny extra digit . A study led by researchers from North Carolina State University has found that aye-ayes possess small Researchers discover aye-aye's extra finger. by North Carolina State University.

The aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), if you’re unfamiliar, is one of nature’s more absurd creations. These house cat-size lemurs, native to Madagascar, have super-long, spindly third and fourth fingers that they use to tap on trees to find grubs. Their brains, the largest of any lemur relative to body mass, allow them to find the larvae’s tunnels. They then gnaw into the bark with rodent-like incisors, and remove the goods with their chopstick-like digits.

Examining the aye-aye specimen, Hartstone-Rose and colleagues began to trace the route of a muscle called the abductor pollicis longus down into the forearm. This is one that, in humans, extends the thumb away from the body, a motion called abduction. “It’s the muscle that allows you to hitchhike,” he says.

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"The aye-aye has the craziest hand of any primate ," lead study author Adam Hartstone-Rose, an associate professor of biological sciences at NC "Other species, like the panda bear, have developed the same extra digit to aid in gripping because the standard bear paw is too generalized to allow the

Used for gripping limbs, a “pseudo-thumb” makes the hands of these bizarre primates even The world's weirdest little primate has gotten even weirder, thanks to the discovery of a tiny extra digit . Some moles also have a pseudo-thumb to allow them to dig better. But aye-ayes developed this digit

In most primates, it starts in the forearm and attaches to the base of the thumb. But in the aye-aye, part of it splits off, and connects with a bone called the radial sesamoid, which is usually quite small in other primates, but elongated in this endangered species.

The bone is also topped, the team reported in a study published October 21 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, with an extension of cartilage. Further investigation revealed two other muscles are connected to the radial sesamoid, which allow the bone to move in a gripping motion. Hartstone-Rose and colleagues have named this a “pseudo-thumb,” and suggest that it functions as sixth digit to help the arboreal animals hold onto tree limbs.

“It’s really cool to find this kind of anatomy in a primate for the first time, especially a primate as weird as an aye-aye,” Hartstone-Rose says. Such studies of arm and hand anatomy, and the differences between lineages, could help better understand how these structures have evolved in different species, including humans.

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The anatomist had dissected hundreds of other primate limbs before he was able to dissect an aye-aye hand. The scientists who found the odd thumb suggested this digit evolved to compensate for the aye-aye hands’ extreme specialization. Their five digits are aligned in a neat and unopposed row.

The formerly unknown digit even has its own fingerprint, scientists reported in a new study. "I think this discovery also really underscores how specializing your anatomy for a specific task — in this case, feeding — can necessitate some really bizarre and unexpected adaptations to compensate," he added.

Getting a grip

The team hypothesizes that throughout evolution, the aye-aye lost some ability to grip due to the extreme specialization of its other fingers. The aye-aye’s fourth finger accounts for more than two-thirds the length of its hand; if humans had such a digit, it would be nearly a foot long. Its third digit, which is primarily used for tapping, is very thin and has a wide range of motion, equipped with a unique ball-and-socket joint.

The aye-aye’s first finger, or thumb, is not fully opposable like in some other primates; it rather sits in line with the other digits. Thus, the species may have evolved this pseudo-thumb to help it stay aloft, and perhaps even to pick up different items or foods.

A similar scenario likely happened with the giant panda, which is well known for having a sixth digit, also called a pseudo-thumb. The ancestor of these bears, like other ursines, have digits in a single line, allowing them to walk on the ground; opposable digits get in the way of such footwork.

But panda bears evolved to feed upon bamboo, even though they need to eat more than 12 hours each day to digest it. “Any self-respecting carnivore shouldn’t be digesting all that fiber,” Hartstone-Rose says, jokingly. More to the point, though, climbing bamboo trees is difficult without an opposable digit.

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According to local legends, the aye-aye is a demon that can kill just by pointing a finger. Not quite but if you're a grub, its bizarre middle digit can

A close-up image shows the fleshy pad above the aye-aye's pseudo-thumb. © Image by Adam Hartstone-Rose

A close-up image shows the fleshy pad above the aye-aye's pseudo-thumb.

Enter the panda’s pseudo-thumb, which is also composed of an enlarged radial sesamoid and cartilaginous extension, and is controlled by the same three muscles as in the aye-aye.

This seems to be an example of convergent evolution, a process by which very distantly related species come to have similar bodily structures.

“The panda bear and the aye aye essentially have the same anatomy in the pseudo-thumb,” Hartstone-Rose says, “which is pretty neat.”

The team next plans to study how living aye-ayes and pandas use their special digits.

Dorothy Fragaszy, a primatologist and National Geographic Explorer who wasn’t involved in the paper, says she’ll be particularly interested to see how the aye aye uses this little nub; she imagines it could help them grip trees branches as well as potential food items.

What most fascinates her, she says, is that the pseudo-thumb has its own fleshy pad, visible in photographs. “Those clearly allows them to press or rub the [pseudo-thumb] bony projection against things they’re holding in their palm,” says Fragaszy, who is also an emeritus professor at the University of Georgia.

Anne-Claire Fabre, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum in London who also wasn’t involved in the paper, says she seen aye-ayes “maintaining food items in the palm of their hand while eating,” and this pseudo-thumb may help explain how they do that.

Distracting fingers

As to why the aye-aye’s extra thumb escaped attention, Hartstone-Rose can only speculate.

“The only thing I can figure is, the aye aye’s hand is so interesting, specifically the fingers, so weird, that people have never really noticed that there’s a bizarre thing happening with the other part of the hand,” he says.

The animals are also rare and in decline, perhaps another reason for lack of study. They are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and in decline due to hunting, logging, and habitat fragmentation in Madagascar. (Related: See a different endangered animal in every U.S. state.)

The finding is a good example of how much remains to be discovered in his field, as is true throughout biology.

Hartstone-Rose often gets the question, “Don’t we already know almost everything about anatomy?”

The answer, of course, is no. Just ask the aye-aye.

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