Dryopithecus Facts and Figures

The habitat and habits of this unusual prehistoric European primate

Dryopithecus=Hispanopithecus laietanus, a basal hominidae from the Spanish Miocene epoch.

 Roman Garcia Mora/Stocktrek Images

Dryopithecus was of the many prehistoric primates of the Miocene epoch and was a close contemporary of Pliopithecus. These tree-dwelling apes originated in eastern Africa about 15 million years ago, and then, much like its hominid descendants millions of years later (although Dryopithecus was only remotely related to modern humans), the species radiated out into Europe and Asia.

Fast Facts About Dryopithecus

Name: Dryopithecus (Greek for "tree ape"); pronounced DRY-oh-pith-ECK-us

Habitat: Woodlands of Eurasia and Africa

Historical Epoch: Middle Miocene (15-10 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About four feet long and 25 pounds

Diet: Fruit

Distinguishing Characteristics: Moderate size; long front arms; chimpanzee-like head 

Dryopithecus Characteristics and Diet

While the most recognizable form of Dryopithecus known today had chimpanzee-like limbs and facial features, there were several distinct forms of the species that ranged from small to medium, and even large, gorilla-sized specimens.

Dryopithecus was lacking in most characteristics that distinguish humans and current ape species. Their canine teeth were larger than those in humans, however, they were not as well developed as those of present-day apes. Also, their limbs were relatively short and their skulls did not exhibit the and extensive brow ridges found in their modern counterparts.

Judging from the configuration of their bodies, it's most likely that Dryopithecus alternated between walking on their knuckles and running on their hind legs, especially when being chased by predators. On the whole, Dryopithecus probably spent most of their time high up in trees, subsisting on fruit (a diet we can infer from their relatively weak cheek teeth, which would have been unable to handle tougher vegetation).

Dryopithecus' Unusual Location

The oddest fact about Dryopithecus—and one that's generated a great deal of confusion—is that this ancient primate was found mostly in western Europe rather than in Africa. You don't have to be a zoologist to know Europe isn't exactly known for its wealth of indigenous monkeys or apes. In fact, the only current indigenous species is the Barbary macaque, which, having migrated from its usual habitat in northern Africa is confined to the coast of southern Spain, as as such, is only European by the skin of its teeth.

Though far from proven, some scientists theorize it's possible that the true crucible of primate evolution during the later Cenozoic Era was Europe rather than Africa, and it was only after the diversification of monkeys and apes that these primates migrated from Europe to populate (or repopulate) the continents with which they're most often associated today, Africa, Asia, and South America.

Says David R. Begun, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, "There’s no doubt that apes originated in Africa, or that our more recent evolution happened there. But for a time between these two landmarks, apes hovered on the verge of extinction on their home continent while flourishing in Europe." If that's the case, the European presence of Dryopithecus, as well as numerous other prehistoric ape species, makes much more sense.

Sources

  • Begun, David. "Key Moments in Human Evolution Happened Far From Our Africa Home." NewScientists. March 9, 2016
  • "Dryopithecus: Fossil Primate Genus." Encyclopedia Brittanica. July 20, 1998; revised 2007, 2009, 2018